Role Play

I went to see Invisible at the Bush Theatre.

Performed in the Studio room, a single backdrop that can be used with varying lighting and sound effects to suggest either various flats, a suburban house, a hospital ward, and wherever it is that actors do TV auditions.

The show is performed by Nikhil Parmar, mostly as an out-of-work young actor from a similar background as himself, but he breaks into different character voices, and comments on his own ability at doing so. The show starts fast and funny, as he quickly sets up details of his relationship problems having broken up from the mother of his young daughter, who is now being shared between them. This part of the show has the rhythm of stand-up comedy, the smart sort that has plenty of observational detail but also mocks its own contrivances.

The pace slows as we get the 3 premises of this world: firstly (as we were told in an imagined news broadcast), we are now in a near-future where “Chinese tech-terrorism” has entirely supplanted “radical Islam” as the Other Peril du jour of the Occidental Imagination, with the result that actors of a Muslim background can’t get so much work any more and are back to the 1970s baseline of playing occasional doctors or incidental professionals who briefly intersect white lives. The channel Dave has cancelled the sitcom Jumping Jihadis, causing depression for the Liverpool based British-Iranian who stars in it. But in any case, being an actor from an ethnic minority wasn’t great even when there was more work going around to play baddies. There are all the jabs and microaggressions that occur even from Guardian liberals who pride themselves on being better than that. Thirdly, our narrator is an actual human being with a family and a history and a lot of sad stories as well as the one about being unemployed.

There are jokes about angry young men living in Watford who talk in American accents, and about being incompetent at selling weed and holding down crap jobs. As with Arinze Kene’s Misty (shown at Bush Theatre 4 years ago), our performer is angry about limited opportunities and having to present only a very partial version of himself, and also angry at the manipulation of this anger and the story behind it, editing it down into another palatable and simplified stereotype for the mainstream. Similar to Misty, we get the voices played back of unseen white gatekeepers, approving the work but then putting conditions on it, whilst the narrator’s own friends challenge his motives and integrity. The central metaphor is of course visibility and its disappearance once a sensational framing is no longer available. I Wanna Be Yours in 2019 also alluded to the microcosm of white creative people happy to harvest talent from minorities whilst controlling the format it was presented in.

The playscript is not yet available which is why I can’t post any samples of the monologue, but I don’t think it would work so well on the page. Nikhil Parmar completely controls his material, faking slips and corrections that are revealed as intentional once we get to know his character better.

The picture at the top is Maurice Colbourne and Saeed Jaffrey together in Gangsters (1976-8). Jaffrey was of course one of those few Asian actors who got to appear as occasional doctors in 70s TV. Gangsters was a rare show in that it had just as many minority roles as white ones, but nearly all of them had to play baddies. It’s just as well that the 2nd series broke down in to surrealism and self-mockery.

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