In April 1968, malady Enoch Powell M.P. made a speech about immigration which electrified and divided a nation and which has shaped the debate about English identity ever since. It was called the Rivers of Blood speech because it predicted racial war.
In the speech Powell used the racist term picaninnies to describe immigrant children in a Wolverhampton street. One of those Wolverhampton picaninnies has grownup to become the brilliant black academic and writer, healing Rose Cruickshank, and in her next book she wants to confront the man who made the speech. But in the process she will also have to confront her childhood.
White, black, brown, Quaker, Muslim, feminist, often conflicted about their own personal identity and at odds with the community to which they were born, these characters are full of their own vivid life. Together they dramatize a fractured multicultural nation and its search for identity.
What Shadows opened at the Birmingham Rep on 27th October 2016.
The play was directed by Roxana Silbert, designed by Ti Green and lit by Chahine Yavroyan. The cast was Waleed Akhtar (Saeed/Bobby Hussain/Sergeant Shergar), Brid Brennan (Sofia Nicol/Pamela Powell), George Costigan (Clem Jones), Ian McDiarmid (Enoch Powell), Rebecca Scroggs (Rose Cruickshank/Joyce Cruickshank), Phaldut Sharma (Sultan/Dr Sharma), Paula Wilcox (Grace Hughes/Marjorie Jones), and introducing April Alexander, Chijioke Egbezor-Oum and Christina Wright-Young (Young Rose).
The production was revived the following year, playing the Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh from 7th September 2017 to 23rd September and the Park Theatre, London from 27th September to 28th October. The cast was Waleed Akhtar (Saeed/Bobby Hussain/Sergeant Shergar), Ameet Chana (Sultan/Doctor Sharma), Amelia Donkor (Rose Cruickshank/Joyce Cruickshank), Nicholas Le Prevost (Clem Jones), Ian McDiarmid (Enoch Powell), Joanne Pearce (Sofia/Pamela), Paula Wilcox (Grace/Marjorie Jones), and introducing Niyala Clarke, Sienna Clarke, Ami Marks and Tsemaye Masile (Young Rose).
One reviewer said Ian McDiarmid played Enoch Powell with "a shuddering sense of truth." Other reviewers described him as "mesmerising", "outstanding", "astonishing" and "chilling". It was a monumental performance, unafraid to be unlikeable but somehow terribly touching.
Having said that, the play is only partly about Enoch Powell. The opening lines of the play are "How to talk to people we hate. How to speak across the anger that divides us." It's a play about conversation, how to have a conversation in a multicultural society.
We have been debating immigration and identity for over fifty years and our divisions are deeper than ever. Is there something wrong with the way we are framing the conversation?
Every time we open this conversation, the framework is "conflict". What paradigm shift is required in the way we reason and talk about identity which would make our conversation productive?