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Jennifer Bakst, Director, Sahar Speaks: Voices of Women from Afghanistan

Tomorrow we start rehearsals for Sahar Speaks: Voices of Women from Afghanistan our triple bill of plays based on true life stories of women from Afghanistan. The production brings together a cast and creative team of diverse women. Today on the eve of rehearsals we meet one of those talented women; Jennifer Bakst, the director of The Place of Shining Light by Yasmin Joseph.

“That’s the power of theatre, to get people in a room together, live, empathising and engaging with these people onstage, participating with their imaginations. I want to leave them wanting to know more. To whip out their phones in the foyer and read these women’s full stories.” Jennifer Bakst, Director, Sahar Speaks

What were your first impressions of the Sahar Speaks project when you were asked to be involved in this production?

This project jumped out at me straight away. I used to study and work in the international development sector, particularly with refugees and asylum seekers, and I think there’s something really important about telling the untold story and sharing in the lives of others.

There’s a proverb, Nigerian I think, which goes something like: “until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” Sahar Speaks is one of those brilliant organisations that actively promotes unheard voices, in this case by empowering female Afghan journalists to tell Afghan women’s stories. And they are extraordinary stories, told by extraordinary women.

Tell us about the play you are directing.

The Place of Shining Light is based on the true story of Zahra, an amazing girl who at only 5 years old decided she wanted to dress as a boy in order to go to school and get an education otherwise denied her. Yasmin has done a beautiful job writing a piece inspired by Zahra’s bold action.

What excites you most about telling this story?

Girl decides to dress as a boy to go to school, what’s not to like? From a dramatic standpoint, it’s an incredible story to tell: funny, brave, terrifying, sad… That said, the fact that it’s true means we’ve really got to do it with respect and care, to try to get it as truthful as possible.

There’s a book, The Underground Girls of Kabul, which I’d coincidentally read before I ever got to know Zahra’s story, about how there is a small and quite secret population of girls in Afghanistan who masqueraded as boys, for lots of different reasons… for education, so that they could work and provide additional income for the household, for a whole number of complicated cultural, social, political and economic reasons… Often it is the parents who make this decision early in the child’s life. What’s amazing about Zahra is that it was her choice – can you imagine a little 5 year old waltzing up to her father and saying: “dad, I want to be a boy and go to school”? It cracks me up, and at the same time it is so powerful. It shows how much growing up Zahra had to do when she was so little. She had to be so adult so far before her time. It’s a sad reflection on her surroundings. At 5, I was still into My Little Pony. Pretty sheltered by comparison, right?

Is there any resonance with any personal experience for you in the story?

I’m lucky enough to have grown up in a place where education is a natural right and obligation, regardless of gender, ethnicity, disability, or anything else. It’s easy to underestimate. When I briefly worked in a refugee camp in Thailand, there were a number of families that had left their homes and taken their children to camps so that they could get, among other things, an education. I was privileged to work with some people who took their education really, really seriously, and are now in universities across the world, in Australia, Canada, Thailand and Germany on refugee scholarships. They’re studying all sorts of different things, some medicine, some economics and politics – lots of people I spoke to want an education so that they can speak out on behalf of their communities. Having a platform for unheard voices is absolutely key. Having agency over your own narrative is a powerful thing, which is why people like Zahra are so impressive and important. Although you won’t see this in the play (which takes place when she is 11), she went on to university to study law, and then became a journalist – no small feat for a woman in Afghanistan.

But all this important political stuff aside, the genius of Zahra’s story and Yasmin’s script is that there’s so much about it that’s relatable. So much at the heart of this story is about negotiating schoolyard scraps, making friends, growing up, and leaving your parents behind. What’s not to love?

Have you ever worked on a play adapted from a true story before?

I directed a rehearsed reading of Hate Radio which used verbatim materials collected by Milo Rau – this was a play about this hugely popular radio station during the Rwandan genocide that incited hate and violence at the time. It was a fascinating process, and very very generously, a genocide survivor, Eric, came to talk to me and the cast about his experiences. He said he was lucky: he was a footballer and one of the radio hosts was a big fan, so when someone called in “denouncing” Eric as a Tutsi to make him a target, the show host lied to protect him, giving Eric enough time to flee the country. It’s an amazing story, and we were honoured to have Eric on board, as well as all the hugely generous contributions from everyone who lent their voice to the play. It’s a privilege to work on stories based on true lives, and a scary prospect – you don’t want to mess it up!

The over-arching theme of all of the stories of the women who have written them is the curtailment or complete embargo on their freedom of speech. Do you have any observations to make on giving voice to these women’s stories?

We had better give it our all. These women have made a huge risk in speaking out, in getting their voices out there and the voices of other women. They thought, too rightly, that getting these stories out there, finding a platform for their untold stories, is worth putting themselves at personal risk for. So it’s an honour to participate in spreading that story a little further, even if our reach isn’t massive.

Has the sensitivity of the subject matter and the adaptation of a living person’s story in any way changed your process of approaching the text?

I haven’t really started rehearsals yet so it’s hard to say…Ultimately, to have the most impact, and to get people to listen; it has to be theatrical and engaging storytelling. That’s the power of theatre, is to get people in a room together, live, empathising and engaging with these people onstage, participating with their imaginations. So we’ve got to be gripping, we’ve got to be entertaining, and hopefully inspire people’s curiosity. I want to leave them wanting to know more. To whip out their phones in the foyer and read these women’s full stories. That said, the story we’re telling is naturally so interesting and engaging, and the characters are such firecrackers, so it won’t be hard to find humour, energy, passion, argument, conflict, and heart in this beautiful scene between a mother and her daughter. Yasmin’s written a gorgeous dynamic between these two characters, and we’ve got a great cast. I can’t wait to get started.

Has working on this play changed your world view in any way if so how?

Absolutely. Sahar Speaks has provided me with insight on a subject matter I knew very little about. It’s also always lovely to work with new people, and I’m looking forward to the collaboration between Yasmin, Nigarish, Géhane and myself.

What are you most looking forward to about the production?

Rehearsals! Always my favourite part! When you can just have a play and see what happens. But I’m also really curious to chat to audiences afterwards, see what they take away from it. Come check it out, and come chat after.



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