The P Word
When Black people and non-Black people alike speak about the ‘Black community’, I feel conflicted. Although there are shared experiences brought about by being the same skin colour, and although I can express solidarity with Black people across the world, there is no one Black community, but rather communities. To homogenise Black people into one group, to deny that there are differences between how even two Black people living in the same country, the same city, or the same road, might understand their Blackness, is reductive and flattens intersecting issues of class, ethnicity, gender and sexuality in favour of ‘easy’ racial categorisation.
With The P Word, Waleed Akhtar turns the tender romance between two gay Pakistani men living in London into a timely conversation about race, politics, and (internalised) prejudices. Akhtar, who plays Billy (a purposeful Anglicisation of his full name, Bilal), also explores issues of self-hatred and fatphobia with his character. Bilal is a London boy and gym buff, but his workouts are always punishments for being unlovable, a way to control something in his life when he cannot control the affections of others. Akhtar’s portrayal of this inner turmoil isn’t always the most convincing, especially when compared to Esh Alladi, who with incredible sensitivity and earnestness, plays Zafar, a Pakistani asylum seeker who inspires Billy to go on a journey of self-reflection and growth. Alladi’s wide-eyed naivete makes for a tour-de-force of a performance here.
Zafar’s story – a gay man who’s fled Pakistani after his father killed his partner and is now surviving in Hounslow, subject to the malicious and draconian rules of the Home Office forces – makes Bilal’s story unfortunately weak in comparison. This is especially clear in the beginning when the two men’s monologues about their backstories intertwine – Zafar’s devastatingly sombre, Bilal’s (where he speaks about his Grindr hook-ups) played for laughs.
When both storylines intertwine, during London’s annual Pride parade, director Anthony Simpson-Pike offers us a beautifully-staged story about two very different experiences of being Pakistani and gay, and how while the two characters overcome these differences here, most asylum seekers aren’t afforded such chances to have a Bollywood-style love story and ending. Simpson-Pike and sound designer Xana work the voiceovers of various off-stage characters into the narrative seamlessly – in Zafar’s story, the oppressive voices of policemen, Home Office employees, and others boom through the auditorium, which Alladi plays off with affecting realism (he cowers, left bewildered by British and Pakistani homophobia and cruelty). In comparison, Bilal is given the luxury of controlling his narrative, acting out his off-stage characters (including Fat Jason, often the butt of his jokes).
It is only until the end when the character of Bilal is really put in Zafar’s shoes, a scene in which Akhtar truly shines and which is a perfect dramatisation of Zafar’s line, ‘I’m not in your Britain. I’m in another Britain’. Despite the similarity between their two worlds, these two characters will never really understand what it’s like to be each other – Bilal will never understand how it must feel to walk the streets of London, unsure whether that will be the day that you’re deported at any moment to Pakistan or even Rwanda.
The play may tend to over-explain, and its set leaves a lot to be desired for a play with two fashion-obsessed characters, but the lack of subtext isn’t a problem when this play is offering the kind of education for British audiences that is sorely needed. But this is simultaneously a show for Pakistanis, who’ll have first-hand knowledge of how harmful the titular slur is as well as the cultural references peppered throughout. On a larger scale, The P Word connects to the discourse around the strata that exists within all communities of colour, which allows Priiti Patels, Kemi Badenochs, Rishi Sunaks of the world to enact insidious policies on members of their own race because they choose not to put themselves in their shoes.