Claire Sawers

Freelance Writer

Month: July 2016

Feature: Five comedians share their thoughts on race.

Shappi Khorsandi

Shappi Khorsandi

The Herald 
30 July 2016

Shappi Khorsandi

(pictured, left)

Fringe regular Khorsandi has tackled race plenty times before, with shows such as The Asylum Speaker and The Distracted Activist. This time Tehran-born Khorsandi, who grew up in west London in the 80s after her Iranian family fled in exile, is ‘reclaiming patriotism’. According to her press release, “She’s celebrating her 40th year in Britain with a love letter to her adopted land. Skinheads welcome.”

Oh My Country! From Morris Dancing to Morrissey, The Stand, 8.30pm, 3rd-28th August, (not 4th,15th).

Read Claire Sawers’ review of Shappi Khorsandi’s Fringe show online at The List here

Nazeem Hussain

Patron of RISE: Refugees, Survivors and Ex-Detainees, an Australian organisation run by refugees, this Muslim comedian of Sri Lankan descent will be covering Britain after Brexit in his debut Fringe show. He’ll also be discussing the rise of the Australian extreme right wing, immigration and his TV comedy show Legally Brown.

Legally Brown, Assembly George Square Studios, 8pm, 3rd-28th August (not 16th).

Athena Kugblenu

This half Ghanaian, half Guyanese comedian grew up in north London. Her debut Fringe show will explore politics, class, immigration and heritage, “in a way that encompasses, rather than isolates, highlights rather than diminishes and relentlessly challenges stereotype.”

Reality Check, Laughing Horse @Southside Social, 10pm, 13th-28th August.

Jamali Maddix

UK-born Maddix has a Jamaican dad and Italian mum and is bringing his first solo show to the Fringe. “The time is ripe to talk about racism. My only debt to the audience is to be funny. I can’t apologise for what colour I am. Although I’m not saying I’m a role model, I’m a piece of s**t person and I hate responsibility.”

Chickens Come Home To Roost, Pleasance Courtyard, 8.15pm, 3rd-29th August (not 15th).

Bilal Zafar

A former care assistant in Manchester, this London-based comedian’s material often deals with his experiences of islamophobia and racism. His debut show promises to take his audience, “on a fascinating and hilarious journey of how he became a prime target for the furious far right around the world.”

Cakes, Just the Tonic at The Mash House, 3.40pm, 4th-28th (not 15th).

Read online at The Herald here.

Feature: Brexit Britain has made the comedy circuit a worrying place for many non-white comedians

The Herald
30 July 2016 

Shazia Mirza on the cover of The Herald Saturday Arts magazine

Shazia Mirza on the cover of The Herald Saturday Arts magazine

When the Brexit vote is no laughing matter

IT WAS Friday June 24. “Black Friday.” Many were still struggling to swallow the EU referendum news, and comedian Nish Kumar was playing a gig at London’s Comedy Store. More than a decade into his comedy career, it was the night he got his first racist heckle. “Go home!”, shouted someone halfway up the room. “I am home . . .?”, Kumar offered back. Born and raised in the UK, Kumar’s parents are from Kerala, India, hence his brown skin.

Fellow stand-up Paul Tonkinson was quick to Tweet about Kumar’s heckler, saying, “There’s no way this would have happened pre-Brexit.” The National Police Chiefs’ Council reported an alarming 57% rise in reports of hate crime that weekend, and hearing that xenophobes were now straying into the traditionally pretty liberal, arts-loving environs of the metropolitan comedy club sent ripples throughout certain pockets of the comedy scene. In particular, the non-white pockets.

Birmingham-born comedian Shazia Mirza has been performing material about Islamophobia since 2000, including gags about her Pakistani Muslim parents, so should be pretty unfazed about putting a non-white voice onstage by now. Yet since Brexit, she’s turned down six venues on her UK tour.

“I decided not to play certain venues, where I think it might not be safe now,” says Mirzia. “I don’t want to go to Sunderland, or Folkestone, where they’re not necessarily going to want to hear what I have to say. I wouldn’t have said that before.”

Three days after Brexit, a friend of Mirza was assaulted in the street during Ramadan, and asked, “Why haven’t you left yet?” When she replied that she was born in Britain, they spat back, “Change your f***ing clothes then.”

For Mirza, it’s a worrying jolt back to the 1970s, the last time she remembers people being openly racist.

“I was five when someone called by mum a ‘black bastard’ on a train, it was horrific. Lots of Irish in Birmingham were labelled as terrorists around then too. But that kind of visible racism – graffiti on walls, abuse in the street – I’ve not known it since my childhood. It seems so backwards and old-fashioned to go back there.”

Mirza believes certain racist views have been dormant for years, and the referendum has helped bring them to life. Sameena Zehra, a Brighton-based comedian who grew up in Kashmir, agrees.

“The referendum has unleashed something, or legitimised a lot of people’s views. It’s as if all the work against xenophobia before now, we didn’t teach them it was wrong to think like that; we just told them it was taboo. Now there’s this institutional endorsement of how they feel, certain people have just gone apeshit.”

Zehra, who will host a nightly club during the Fringe, The Cult of Comedy, and perform her solo show Poetry Can Fuck Off at The Stand, isn’t scared to go onstage, in fact it’s made her more determined to address racism through her work.

“The court jester used to make fun of society’s issues, and treat very dark matters very lightly. He could move across the entire continuum, play in front of noblemen and commoners and get away with making jokes about them all. As comedians, we need to focus on that power.”

She believes comedians are uniquely placed to speak about issues too often minimised and swept aside.

“I’m a brown, able bodied, heteronormative, middle class woman, but ask the LGBT or disabled community, and many would say the same, very disturbing problems can be written off as ‘just anecdotal evidence’ when it’s a much larger, culturally ingrained problem. It’s great these fictions are now being exposed, and we need to learn how to have nuanced conversations about them.”

Comedian Njambi McGrath has lived in London for over twenty years, and grew up in Kenya. She is writing a memoir about her childhood, where she witnessed the effects of structural racism, after both her parents were sent to concentration camps, on Winston Churchill’s orders.

“After centuries of portrayals of black people as backwards and dangerous, and these constant, subliminal messages, bigotry becomes a disease.”

Although McGrath has never experienced racist abuse in a comedy club, she admits she’s now “very nervous” about performing. If one did show up, she isn’t confident they’d want to discuss their views if challenged.

“Often it’s not a grown up debate. I would argue until I’m blue in the face, but would they want to listen? I grew up in Africa, so I know how easy it is for politicians to make people turn on one another. When people are living unhappy lives, they are very easy to incite.”

She is looking forward to playing Edinburgh, which she considers “an intelligent audience”, but is worried about other places. She describes a recent gig in Lichfield where she went on after three white male standups.

“The audience was in bits. Hysterics! I thought they’d be an easy crowd and I was about to shred it. But they just stared at me. I absolutely died onstage. I don’t want to cry racism – I wouldn’t cut it in this game if I couldn’t accept a crowd just not finding me funny. But sometimes racist vibes can be much more subtle.”

Mixed bill lineups can be more daunting than a solo show, admits Tez Ilyas, performing Made in Britain at the Pleasance.

“I’m feeling good about Edinburgh,” says Ilyas, after coming off stage at Latitude Festival. “I’d be surprised to get heckled by someone who’s seen my name and face on a poster and paid to see me. Playing to crowds who don’t know you is tougher. I’m certainly more apprehensive about playing gigs outside of metropolitan, liberal bubbles like the Edinburgh and London scene.”

For Nish Kumar, the “Go home” heckle has given him fresh material for his Edinburgh show.

“I’m 30 years old – I’m too old to be bullied! I refuse to be intimidated by the actions of a small bunch of dickheads.” He thinks of Edinburgh audiences as “judiciously comedy savvy and well behaved” and remembers a recent gig at The Stand where a drunk woman in the crowd kicked herself out before the show began, worried she was about to get boisterous.

“I’m painfully aware that I’m in a privileged, luxurious position. My job gives me a platform to discuss these disturbing ideas. In a protected environment, with security. Others don’t have that ability to challenge the idiocy. The worst thing we can do is dismiss what’s happening, and downplay the significance of hate crimes.”

Nish Kumar: Actions Speak Louder Than Words, Unless You Shout The Words Real Loud, Pleasance Courtyard, August 3-28; Shazia Mirza, The Stand, August 4-13; Sameena Zehra: Poetry Can F*ck Off, The Stand, August 4-28 (not 15); Njambi McGrath: 1 Last Dance With My Father, Laughing Horse @ Espionage, August 3-27(not 8, 15, 22); Tez Ilyas: Made in Britain, Pleasance Courtyard, August 3-28(not 15).

Read online and view a photo gallery at The Herald here


Feature: Religious Stand-Ups at the Edinburgh Fringe

The List Edinburgh Festival Guide
July 2016


Katy Brand

Losing their religion

There’s a swarm of Fringe comedy shows this August with stand-ups reflecting on their heavily religious teenage years.
We hear about their conflicted views and what made them leave the faith

A black Christian, a gay Baptist and a radical evangelist all walk into a bar. Well, they had to, they were booked to do a stand-up gig in there. They’re not the only ones either: this year’s Fringe programme reveals a clutch of comedians whose shows are inspired by their childhoods growing up in religious households.

Shazia Mirza returns to the Fringe for a ten-night stint, continuing her quest to make sense of her experiences as a British-Asian woman raised in multi-faith Birmingham by a Muslim mum who is now ‘strongly anti-burka’. Tom Ward was raised by a fundamentalist Christian dad and Catholic mum who banned Christmas and fashionable trainers in the house. His show Sex, Snails and Cassette Tapes looks at how he found personal salvation through girls, surf-rock bands and charity shops. Elsewhere, Ali Hassan examines his Muslim heritage in Man Interrupted, if only to answer his four children’s knotty questions about modern-day Islam.

And who knew that Katy Brand, star of Katy Brand’s Big Ass Show, was once a radical fundamentalist Christian? ‘My local church seemed really cool and vibrant to me as a 13-year-old,’ she remembers. ‘It was one of those Church of England ones that got hit by a trend which came over from America in the 90s, and suddenly we were speaking in tongues and praying out demons.’

It didn’t hurt that Brand had a crush on the worship leader, and there was a gospel rock band that she could sign up for. ‘I felt like a celebrity,’ she winces, before confessing the whole thing gives her ‘the massive, deep cringe’ now. ‘Suddenly I felt important and I could show off. We’d go into supermarkets on Saturdays and preach, and I’d tell all my friends they’d go to hell if they didn’t go to church … Looking back, I was an obnoxious dick.’

She’s grateful that her self-imposed radicalisation was short-lived, but now, as stepmother to a teenage daughter, she can see exactly why it happened. ‘Teenagers are ripe for radicalisation,’ says Brand, whose young dabblings in the right-wing waters of Christian extremism provides an inspiration for her debut stand-up show, I Was a Teenage Christian. Her parents were laid-back and liberal, so she imagines her attempts at rebellion were probably ‘Saffy Syndrome’, like Julia Sawalha’s militantly sensible, teetotal 16-year-old bookworm in Absolutely Fabulous.

‘You feel valuable, which is appealing,’ Brand explains. ‘Plus, maybe you’re interested in the afterlife and ghosts and mortality at that age too. It all depends what religion gets you first really: it could have been dangerous. If I’d been 13 during the Crusades, I’d probably have been off on a horse, slaughtering people.’

Like Brand, it was the social aspect of religion that sucked comedian John Pendal in. As a shy, awkward child of devout Baptist parents whose lives revolved around prayer meetings and church trips, he was bullied at school. After attending a holiday camp for fundamentalist Baptists at Butlins when he was 16, and joining the church’s theatre and youth group around the same time, Pendal suddenly felt popular. ‘I was allowed onstage, with a mic! As the bullied kid, it felt like heaven. Religion did a lot for me; god was like this invisible friend when I didn’t have any.’

Pendal became involved with his church in Watford, and enjoyed feeling respected in the Baptist community. Until, that is, he mentioned to a church leader that he was turned on by a muscly male bodybuilder he’d seen in an episode of Neighbours. ‘The church sent me for counselling. I was told “gay” didn’t exist. They tried to convince me there were no homosexuals in Africa. I was very confused and considered abstaining from sex, like celibate Catholic priests do.’

It wasn’t enough though. When Pendal formed a platonic friendship with a gay man from the Metropolitan Community Church – dubbed the ‘Inclusive Church’ because of its doors-open policy to the LGBT community – he was kicked out of his youth group and stonewalled by many old friends. ‘I got handwritten hate mail from members of my old church, saying I was on the path to hell.’

In fact, those formative experiences within the Baptist church sent Pendal on a very different path. In 2003 he entered the 25th ‘International Mr Leather’ contest in Chicago, and became the first Brit to win. ‘The contest involved me giving a speech, so I basically got up and joked that I’d been raised in the strict teetotal bubble of the Baptist church, then got kicked out for going for a drink with a man. It got a huge round of applause and I won.’

Winning meant he spent eight years touring the world, giving speeches to the BDSM community, and discussing kinks and fetishes. It was a perfect training ground for stand-up comedy and supplied plenty material for his debut show, John Pendal: International Man of Leather. ‘I had no self-confidence in my looks: I still don’t. But coming out aged 22 – whilst in the Baptist church, and with everything that’s happened since – has definitely given me an outsider’s view on the world, which every comedian needs.’

Pendal now has ‘mixed feelings’ about his religious upbringing. On the one hand, he made friends through his church, but is deeply confused by certain hypocrisies. ‘I still never buy lottery tickets: the indoctrination is so strong! But after being condemned by the very people who had welcomed me, my faith was gradually kicked out of me.’

Religion also remains a double-edged sword for Njambi McGrath, a Kenyan-born comedian who has lived in the UK for over 20 years. The Kikuyu tribe that her family belongs to was heavily influenced by Glasgow-born missionary Doctor John Arthur, who brought Church of Scotland teachings to Africa.

‘Dr Arthur labelled many ethnic practices as “morally repugnant” and banned our traditional clothes and jewellery,’ says McGrath. ‘But he also spoke out against female genital mutilation and helped it become a criminal offence. Some girls began performing circumcisions themselves; the psychology behind that is incredible, but as we know, cultural and religious beliefs can become so deeply ingrained.’

McGrath has first-hand experience of the complicated, controversial effects of Christian evangelism: her mother was ordered to spend time in ‘The Room’ below their church, as ‘purification’ and punishment for the sin of divorcing Njambi’s father. Her Fringe show, 1 Last Dance With My Father is McGrath’s attempt to confront her past, and the father who beat her.

‘It’s hard for me even now to condemn god: I grew up surrounded by Sunday school, religious songs, morning prayers, evening prayers that went on so long your dinner was stone cold! I used to read the bible before bed. But seeing preachers behaving like Casanovas, impregnating teenage children, taking bribes: I became totally disillusioned.’

For Katy Brand, it took something far smaller to call her faith into question. Being asked to sign an anti-Harry Potter petition finally pushed her over the edge. ‘It just seemed totally absurd and childish. I don’t approve of censorship (maybe if I thought Harry Potter was really shit I might have), but when they tried to pressure me into signing that, my eyes rolled into the back of my head. Since quitting, I’ve not been back.’

That said, she admits to still being fond of her unofficial uniform as a Christian radical. ‘Jeans and a fleece are still a natural choice for me.’

Katy Brand: I Was a Teenage Christian, Pleasance Courtyard, 6–29 Aug (not 15), 4.45pm, £10–£13.50 (£9–£12.50). Previews 3–5 Aug, £7.
John Pendal: International Man of Leather, The Stand 4, 5–28 Aug (not 15), 4.45pm, £8 (£7). Preview 4 Aug, £7 (£6).
Njambi McGrath: 1 Last Dance With My Father, Laughing Horse at Espionage, 1–27 Aug, 2.30pm, free.
Shazia Mirza, The Stand 5, 5–13 Aug, 6.15pm, £9 (£8). Preview 4 Aug, £8 (£7).
Ali Hassan: Man Interrupted, Gilded Balloon at the Counting House, 6–28 Aug (not 15), 9.15pm, £6–£7 in advance or Pay What You Want. Previews 3–5 Aug, £5 (or PWYW).
Tom Ward: Sex, Snails and Cassette Tapes, Pleasance Courtyard, 6–28 Aug (not 15), 9.45pm, £8–£9.50 (£7–£8.50). Previews 3–5 Aug, £6.

Read online at The List here.



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