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A Stage Worthy Topic

The National Youth Theatre is using the stage as a voice to bring much needed attention to the social problem of youth violence and knife crime that has gripped London in recent months.

boyWritten by Tanika Gupta, White Boy, was last year’s runaway success at the National Youth Theatre as part of its 2007 Generation ID season exploring the theme of identity. The play opened to critical success for its urgent topicality and treatment of issues centred on race, identity, teenage culture, and the unfortunate reality of knife crime.

Gupta, who started writing as child, has written widely for the stage, television and radio. She is known for hard-hitting plays such as Gladiator Games and Fragile Land, and is an award-winning playwright. She was commissioned by the National Youth Theatre to specifically write a play about identity. Gupta explains she decided to focus on the, “Issue of identity more than black identity and I was quite interested in the areas of stabbings that had taken place recently and I married the two ideas into a play.” However, she is quick to point out it was not solely about the experience of writing about a sensitive subject matter because it is not a new territory for her as a writer. It was about being able to take the theme and write an interesting play because “If you don’t have intense experience in difficult sensitive subjects, then the plays aren’t very interesting,” says Gupta.

Race and identity are two key central themes Gupta developed in White Boy, an issue she can relate to, “I’m an Asian woman, therefore, the whole area of race is very interesting to me,” she affirms. Timi Fadipe, who has worked with the National Youth Theatre for 8years and plays the role of Sorted, adds, “The theme of identity is a major issue for the writer and as teenagers, we all go through that period of uncertainty and question everything.” Fadipe admits he has never been personally affected by any of the issues raised in the play. However, he professes he has not been “Desensitized by recent statistics and one of the reasons this play has been so successful, is because of its major topicality.”

As a playwright, Gupta has always refused to be categorised as an ‘Asian Woman writer.’ A term she says, “Denigrates me a little bit. It means they have put me in a box and I don’t like boxes.” However, she is not ashamed of being Asian, “I’m very Asian but I don’t like labels,” she asserts. Gupta also believes the stage is presently telling more of the British experience than film and television. “I think television is become much blandly and it really doesn’t reflect the society that we live in.” Hence, one of the main reasons she made a conscious decision the characters in White Boy were from different backgrounds. “It was certain on my part to write a play which reflects the schools in London,” she says.  “I mean you go into schools now and there are different languages, spoken in that classroom and I was absolutely wanted to make sure that was reflected in the play.”

As with all things, a production never goes without its challenges and for Gupta, it was working with young people. “I’m very used to working with trained adults and its quite daunting for a 14yr old to be acting on stage and in front of a whole audience” she admits. “So, it was very much making them feel confident and that they can do it.”  Despite the difficulties along the way, Gupta acknowledges, she also learnt new things from the young ensemble of actors. The most memorable was being corrected on her wrong use of language though she had written colloquially like young people speak. “There’s lots of slang in it which grown ups wouldn’t necessarily understand but even then, I got some wrong,” she explains; but “This young cast set me right, for example, you don’t say snagging anymore, you say lipsing.” It turned out to be a good experience for this playwright who had become accustomed to working with adults that “In the end, it was such a wonderful company that I felt like everyone’s mother,” she says.

One of Gupta’s expectations for this re-run is that more people will be able to see the production than last year due to its short run. A viewpoint shared by Juliet Knight, director of White Boy, “I am hoping more people will get the chance to see it and that more people will start talking about it and the subject matter.”

Note: This feature was written in 2008 and was first published in The Voice Newspaper.

Image: Chris Ridley


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