sun 29/03/2020

First Person: Hassan Abdulrazzak on the real-life drama behind American deportation to the UK | reviews, news & interviews

First Person: Hassan Abdulrazzak on the real-life drama behind American deportation to the UK

First Person: Hassan Abdulrazzak on the real-life drama behind American deportation to the UK

A provocative fact-based play locates truth in transcripts

Deportation dance: 'The Special Relationship'

You are at a party having a good time when someone gives you a glass of champagne. You take one and then another and soon the party is over. You get in the car to go home and are driving along when you see a police car in the rearview mirror: how annoying! Now you are regretting that indulgent second glass but what’s done is done. The cop gives you a breathalyzer test and you are exactly at the legal limit.

You are at a party having a good time when someone gives you a glass of champagne. You take one and then another and soon the party is over. You get in the car to go home and are driving along when you see a police car in the rearview mirror: how annoying! Now you are regretting that indulgent second glass but what’s done is done. The cop gives you a breathalyzer test and you are exactly at the legal limit. The cop says you have to be below that limit, and you are arrested, charged, imprisoned and deported.

This is just one of the stories in my new play, The Special Relationship, based on true stories of British people who were deported from the United States. The play was commissioned by Synergy Theatre Project, a company that works towards rehabilitation and resettlement with prisoners, ex-prisoners and young people at risk of offending through theatre and related activities. They also commission new work from playwrights that deals with the prison system. Esther Baker, the artistic director of Synergy and this play's director, asked me to investigate the narratives of people deported from the United States after meeting them through referrals from Prisoners Abroad, a charity that aims to safeguard the welfare and human rights of British citizens detained overseas. 

Hassan AbdulrazzakThe Prisoners Abroad staff arranged interviews with those who were happy to share their experience but they could not tell me the reason for the deportation ahead of the interview: It was up to the deportees what information they chose to share. Every interview was a surprise. Anne provided detailed testimony about the terrible conditions in US immigration detention. Pat told a story of resilience and getting around an immigration ban so as to be with his daughter. John committed murder and was imprisoned for 31 years. Nikol faked cheques to feed her kids and keep her abusive husband at bay. Kathy got deported for a minor drug charge. And Clodine was the one deported for drink driving.

All of them (except Kathy) served time for their crimes. I was surprised to learn that the vast majority of those convicted and deported from the United States are for traffic violations. I was also surprised to learn that mass deportation is a phenomenon that started in Bill Clinton’s time and peaked under Obama. Most people have come to associate Donald Trump with harsh immigration policies but the play will challenge this assumption.

I hope the play works in a powerful way to provide an immediate snapshot of a complex happening that is unfolding in the world, before all the academic books get written. Having transcripts of interviews with people who have been through extreme situations feels like collecting vital data that can illuminate the world. This appeals to the scientist in me. [The playwright, pictured above right, has a PhD in molecular biology.] 

In my play, The Prophet, which was largely fictional, I had a scene based on a verbatim account of what it was like to be in the midst of the Egyptian revolution. This rooted the play in reality and gave the audience a flavour of what it felt like to be on the streets protesting against the dictatorship. My play, And Here I Am, was based on extensive interviews with Ahmed Tobasi, an actor and a freedom fighter who grew up in Palestine. He believed in armed resistance but later in life embraced theatre and performance as a way of culturally resisting the occupation.

Duncan Wisbey, a cast member of 'The Special Relationship'The Special Relationship is a new departure for me because the play is almost entirely based on this sort of verbatim material. The challenge of presenting this sort of work is how to make it theatrically alive. Esther and I had the chance to develop the play at the National Theatre Studio with actors such as Duncan Wisbey (from London Road and pictured left by Pieter Lawman) and Penny Layden (My Country) who had plenty of experience in this arena and encouraged us to be bold with our approach. We found a language for the play that was comic, surreal and frankly a bit mad in order to capture the insanity of the immigration systems in the UK and the US. Editing actual speech allows a playwright to find the poetic powers of everyday language. You can pack so much into one sentence or even one word, and those discoveries can be thrilling. 

So, is deportation a double punishment and if it is, do we care? That's the question posed by The Special Relationship: the answer will be up to the audience to decide.

Most people have come to associate Donald Trump with harsh immigration policies but the play will challenge this assumption

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