“Believers” by Javaad Alipoor
Artist statement from Javaad Alipoor, writer and performer of The Believers Are But Brothers, Jan 22-26, 2020.
When UMS programming manager Mary Roeder and her colleagues asked me to write a contribution to the No Safety Net program book, it felt like a really good opportunity to look back over the genesis and development of The Believers Are But Brothers and set out a little bit of the story of its development and its journey to the stage here in Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor feels like a very different place to the location in which I began to make the show, but in some ways, this leg of the international tour has really brought something out for me when I think about what it means to make political theater for an international audience.
By background and by inclination I’m a very political animal. I grew up in a mixed-race family in Bradford, a working-class city in northern England. My family and my early experiences have helped to shape my world view and the kind of art I think needs to be made in the 21st century.
Bradford is a city with two kinds of reputations. In the first and largest sense, it doesn’t have one. It doesn’t pop internationally with the same reputation as Manchester or Liverpool for a variety of reasons. But it’s also known visually as a poorer city with a large Muslim population, and it is often used as a kind of visual cliché to illustrate new stories or dramas about supposedly “problematic” European cities with alleged “racial troubles.”
Before I began my artistic career, I was a community worker and a political and social activist. Now, as an artist, I feel like those parts of my practice, although sometimes less to the fore, are a crucial part of my work. I’m often told that we are living through a renaissance of political theater. But the problem is that a lot of it isn’t very good theater, and it doesn’t really have very deep politics.
For me a lot of that is because it’s made by artists whose only real political commitment comes through the work they make. As a result, it’s built on bad faith; the assumption that the artist has something to say that that will somehow teach an audience something about the world. But here is the rub: audiences are more politically savvy than ever; we live in a world where people are clear that they need to know more about what’s going on than ever before. This is especially true in the self-selecting sample of the population that makes up theater audiences.
For me, political theater isn’t about that at all. It’s about taking a problem — in the case of The Believers Are But Brothers, the relationship between extreme politics, masculinity, and the internet, and sharing that with an audience. So, I hope what might once have been a question that felt intellectual feels visceral, emotional, and centered in the gut.
Throughout the making of Believers, as well as my more recent work, I have tried to stay true to these ideas. As a community worker, I had first-hand experience of the racist and Islamophobic “anti-extremism” policies that were delivered throughout the UK in the aftermath of the July 7, 2005 London attacks. Artistically, it felt to me like the most important reframing for me to make of this discourse, as a young Muslim man, was to point out that we don’t live in a society where there is some sort of problem with young Muslim men, we live in one where increasingly there is a problem with young men.
Aside from that, the other big influence on Believers was the community of Syrian refugees and my links to the Syrian Solidarity Campaign. When I was making the very first iteration of the show, I shared it with some refugees and Syrian activists. They spoke eloquently to me about how the West’s focus on ISIS seemed to them to be part of the constellation that buried that country’s revolution in barrel bombs, inaction, and empty geopolitical discourse.
The Believers Are But Brothers is the first part of a trilogy of plays. I have just opened the second part, Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran, where it also won a Fringe First Award (it transferred to London in early spring 2019). I want the trilogy to explore the relationship between emerging technologies and the great shifts in political reality we are seeing as the second act of the 21st century opens. That’s why it has felt important to me to experiment with using technology like WhatsApp and Instagram theatrically.
Over the past two years, The Believers Are But Brothers has really found its audience from its first award-winning run at the Edinburgh Fringe, through its London transfer, and international touring. It’s been seen across Europe, Australia, Canada, and now premieres in the US in Ann Arbor. In each city we have been to, it has felt like the work has reverberated with a community of people who look at the dynamics of contemporary politics with the same mixture of confusion and resolve that I, and the team that made it, do.
In some ways, it’s the kind of show that stands in an uncelebrated tradition of formally experimental political theater and art from my hometown. Artists like Albert Hunt and Noel Greig led different waves of radicalism in the 1960s and late 1970s, respectively, Hunt from the local art college, and Greig through his company Gay Sweatshop. In the 1990s and early 2000s the city became the home of radical south Asian artists and musicians like Fun-Da-Mental and Aki Nawaz.
I think, whether we consider Brexit, the 2016 American presidential election, or any of a host of other political events, we see the breakdown of the traditional “national” level of politics. People will talk about a feeling of living within two different countries, for instance. At the same time, digital communities and global migration patterns are connecting people and places in ways never seen before. When I think about what it means to make international theater or art, I want it to be that apparent contradiction.
That means, I think, that we have to make work that speaks authentically to place, but that finds the universal. Work that gives up the “state of the nation,” and seeks instead the new networks of power, resentment, and identity that criss-cross the whole world.
Hear a full interview with Javaad Alipoor on our No Safety Net Podcast.