Coconut is a new dark comedy based on writer Guleraana Mir’s real experience of interracial and intercultural relationships. Embarking on a UK tour this summer, this new play begins to challenge the Asian female stereotypes within Britain, giving an honest portrayal of the contemporary British-Asian experience.
Coconut has seen the professional debut of Kuran Dohil as Rumi, with a cast will also including Jimmy Carter (The Giant Killers, Edinburgh Fringe; Othello, Baron Court’s Theatre; Romeo and Juliet, Iris Theatre) and Tibu Fortes (A Midsummer’s Night Dream,
Shakespeare’s Globe; Requiem, BBC/Netflix; People Just do Nothing, BBC3). This production tackles the grey areas around emotional and religious coercion, and this play does not shy away from interrogating the contemporary British Asian experience.
I have spoken to writer Guleraana Mir about the production, as well as why it was an important show for her to write.
Tell me a little bit about Coconut.
Coconut is the story of Rumi – a British Asian woman who is trying to live her life the way she wants to. Under pressure from her parents to get married she tries Halal Speed Dating in a desperate attempt to find a boy her parents might approve of. But when she meets Simon, a white man who’s willing to convert to Islam to be with her she sincerely believes that she’s found the best of both worlds. However Simon’s conversion causes Rumi more trouble than it’s probably worth.
Whilst the story talks about religion and culture and what that means for both characters, essentially it is a play about two people trying to find where they fit in the world, and how they can stay together when life keeps fulling them further apart.
Audiences of multi-cultural London will hopefully recognise themselves in it, regardless of their heritage, because there are universal truths in dysfunctional relationships and it’s astonishing how people change when they’re motivated by the need to belong. So yes, Rumi and Simon belong to a specific culture and religion, but Coconut is a play for anyone who’s ever struggled to find peace within themselves.
You obviously have a very strong connection to the story, living in a similar situation yourself, but what made you write the show?
I was asked to write about being a woman as part of Ladylogue! by Madelaine (director of Coconut and AD of The Thelmas) back in 2014. However I had the extra caveat that I should write about something I was neglecting in my work – which was my heritage. I wanted to write a play that disrupted British Asian stereotypes and portrayed a female character in charge of her own narrative. I basically created Rumi and then let her run amok in the world of the play. Everyone seemed to love her escapades, so we turned it into a full-length play to give her the stage time she deserved.
And why did you call it Coconut?
A coconut is brown on the inside and white on the outside. It’s what Rumi is often called and reflects her journey through the play to self-acceptance.
How did you go about developing it from its 15-minute Camden Fringe production to a full length show about to open at the Ovalhouse?
We spent a lot of time in a room with actors exploring research and finding ways to humanise what I had learnt. I watched documentaries on emotional abuse and fundamentalism, listened to what the creative team had to say about their previous relationships and plotted out journeys for all the characters. The actors then improvised scenes and I went away to write them. This was all beautifully brought together by director & dramaturg Madelaine.
Both Park Theatre and New Diorama supported us on our development journey and gave us the opportunity to play with the characters in a way that allowed us to find the
Why did you write it as a comedy? Was this important to you that people could laugh during the performance?
Because Rumi and Simon’s journey takes them to dark places, there had to be some sense of lightness along the way. Humour is an easy way of breaking tension, poking fun at things that are uncomfortable and allowing audiences to find their own relief. Plus sometimes being in an intercultural relationship is just comedy gold.
Coconut is able to portray Asian women in a way we rarely see in both the theatre and in general popular culture. Was showing a different side to what audiences usually see important to you as a British Pakistani woman?
Yes. I’m so bored of seeing characters on screen or stage that don’t represent me and my cultural identity. People assume that all women with Asian heritage have the same belief system and follow the same ideology. We don’t, that’s impossible, the Indian diaspora is enormous! Our range of fictional characters should reflect that.
And for those of us who don’t know much about Asian theatre in general, do you have any recommendations of other playwrights or pieces of writing we should be checking out?
I wouldn’t say that Coconut is ‘Asian Theatre’, as it’s written to be accessible by people from all backgrounds and walks of life. It’s a story about two people trying to navigate a complicated relationship, and one of them happens to be an Asian woman, because that’s my lived experience. The Thelmas were set up to promote stories in order to accurately represent modern life – Coconut, I hope, is a perfect example of this.
That said, you should definitely keep you eye on Afshan D’Souza Lodhi, Yasmeen Khan, Rabiah Hussain, and Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi – my fellow Tamasha writer cohort as they all have serious attitude and some writing skills!
Coconut is playing at the Ovalhouse in Kennington until 28th April, then embarks on a UK tour beginning 16th May (full tour dates).