Stage & Screen

‘It’s a celebration of my love of football’: Hannah Kumari on her new play ‘ENG-ER-LAND’

In an interview with &ASIAN, creator-performer Hannah Kumari shares how her experiences as a mixed race footie fan inspired ‘ENG-ER-LAND’, an unmissable new play that seeks to bridge the gap between callous banter and true acceptance.
All photos: Ali Wright
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‘It’s a celebration of my love of football’: Hannah Kumari on her new play ‘ENG-ER-LAND’

Congratulations on ENG-ER-LAND soon beginning its tour across the UK, beginning with Dulwich College (London) on the 9th of February! What’s also really exciting is that some of the venues are community locations dedicated to athletics rather than traditional theaters, such as the National Football Museum: a brilliant stroke to bring the battle to the battlefield. 

Can you tell us about the creative intention and logistical challenges that came with making your production as adaptable as possible for such diverse yet appropriate settings? 

When I started to write this piece I very much wanted to reach a non-theatre going audience, as well as people who enjoy watching theater regularly. I think this is reflected in the themes and style of the piece and so it was natural, when it came to planning the tour, that we included venues which were not traditional theatrical spaces, and that were related to sport. As I’d always had this in mind, the piece itself is me on a bare stage with my football bag, so it’s easy to transport and adapt for different spaces. In theaters of course we use lights and we have a fantastic sound design by Tingying Dong, however, the play is specifically designed to work in spaces where there is no tech. 

It’s only in recent years that association football spaces - whether in terms of the players, the fandom or the pundits - have become more welcoming to cis-women, let alone other intersectional factors such as non-conforming gender, sexuality, and ethnicity.

We still have a long way to go, and stories like ENG-ER-LAND are crucial to making it a discussion. Though it’s not an autobiographical production, could you tell our readers more about your personal background and experiences as a female mixed-raced football fan in the UK? 

As you say, it’s not strictly autobiographical, but it is inspired by things I have experienced or witnessed. I am mixed race, my mum is from India and came to the UK when I was 6; my dad is white Scottish although he was born in the Midlands, in Rugby, the town where I grew up. I had quite a white English upbringing for various reasons and this is something which, throughout my life, for some people has not matched up with my skin colour. 

I started going to football when I was 12, with my white English family, and although I never experienced any direct racism at Coventry City (my team) I was always aware of being different: as I was, at the 98% white girls grammar school I attended. Some of the things in the play are verbatim, such as witnessing Ian Wight being racially abused at Ibrox, that really affected me and has stuck with me. It’s interesting that you mention intersectionality; as I have continued to attend football as an adult female, often alone and at different grounds around the country when living in different places, I’ve become more aware not only of my skin colour but also of being a woman. Sometimes it feels like you are expected to put up with certain direct behaviours or listen to group chants which are derogatory to women because ‘it’s just banter’. 

I had one personal and upsetting experience, which I’m not going to go into, that put me off going for a while and definitely made me think twice about going to evening games on my own. All of this being said, I love football and do think things are changing thanks to the amazing work of people like Anwar Uddin for Fans for Diversity. I hope ENG-ER-LAND can be part of that as I’ve tried to make something which is fun and uplifting, and not preachy.

As a long-time fan of the game, what do you make of the growing inclusion of Asian players (or lack thereof) and how fan groups, pundits and governing bodies encourage and support these players, particularly when they might be the subject of racist chants and online abuse? 

I think it’s great that we are finally seeing more Asian players and role models, both male and female, entering the game, in different roles. Of course it’s really important that the right support is provided and I’m hopeful that football as an industry is recognising that.

I’m often struck by how fans of different teams identify so strongly with their loyalties that their interactions almost mimic what I imagine national allegiances were like during historical times of war: this is obviously amplified when the game goes to an international standard. 

Do you think that it’s this ‘Us Vs. Them’ battle fever which clouds people’s ability to discern team/national investment from xenophobia and racism, and have you ever witnessed it at a match you attended? 

I was invited to go on the BBC Asian network during the Euros last year to discuss this very question, does team rivalry go too far. Football is a competitive team sport and for many people it’s probably an outlet for the anger and frustration they feel in other areas of their life. No one wants to sanitise football, least of all me, but I think we do see the fever boil over into other things sometimes. 

Conversely when I attended Scotland vs. Switzerland in Euro 96 this was not the case at all, there was a fantastic atmosphere before, during and after the match between both sets of fans, even though neither team progressed to the next stage of the competition.

The general inability within football to unpack national identity from other unrelated identity factors has me haunted by the incredible Rikki Beadle-Blair’s quote, which actually perfectly encapsulates the cloud of doubt that looms over any non-conforming fan of anything: “you support England, but does England really support you?” 

Could you tell us about how Rikki’s deep understanding bleeds into his direction of the show, and maybe one or two production/writing details by him that are your favourite? 

Rikki is an incredible Director and Artist and as you say has a deep understanding of the themes of this particular piece, which has been so important to its development. It’s hard for me to pick out favourite details as there are so many! Rikki really helped me to unpack the script, find the nuances and let the story speak for itself through the protagonist’s innocence and naivety. I think that really works to convey difficult themes in an impactful way that doesn’t feel didactic.

Football feels like it belongs to white working-class British men, and an obstacle to discussing how intimidating this default is is the stereotypical perception of what racism looks like, when it’s more often passive/well-meaning and from the mouths of those who deeply believe they are not biased. 

What has the reaction been when you’ve mentioned ENG-ER-LAND to white British fans, and do you think/hope there’ll be a good turnout from that demographic to your performances?

I do hope so as that was one of the motivating factors for writing the show. It’s a celebration of my love of football, and of 90s football so I hope that makes it appealing to people. The reactions I’ve had so far from this demographic have been really positive and some people have said it has made them see things in a different way. I think using the lens of a teenage girl and the experience of going on a journey with her makes it easier for people to empathise. 

Another brilliant stroke within your play is the addition of 90s nostalgia; it got me thinking about how as POC of any diaspora, the expectation of us is to educate ourselves in the dominating (and thus often either white or Western) pop culture in the hopes that it “proves” our identity and loyalty, that it transcends our Otherness for them. This contrasts with the general unwillingness of such people in the majority to go out of their comfort zone. We must go to them, code-switching and all.

With more conversations happening post-2020, have you found your relationship to this dynamic changing and as a result, your “performance” and expectations of others at football events also having changed? 

This is a striking question and I think you have articulated perfectly what was going on for me during my teenage years, although I didn’t have an awareness of it at that time in the 90s. I talk about Gwen Stefani in the play who was my ‘total idol’ and my desire to have blonde hair and white skin which dominated a lot of my thoughts back then. I suppose this did come from a subconscious awareness of the need to assimilate and be as ‘English as possible’ - whatever that means! Growing up in a predominantly white town and going to an all-girls grammar school, I didn’t know many people who looked like me, and I desperately wanted to look like my friends. Very interesting that you have talked about transcending our otherness - that’s powerful. 

My relationship with myself and my heritage has definitely changed a lot, even in the last few years. I am developing a deeper understanding and pride in my South Asian heritage and appreciation of what my grandparents went through in coming here, the sacrifices they made to try and give my mum and her siblings a better life. I think I’ve been quite closed off to this side of me before and that’s something I’ve actually felt really guilty about, but as you’ve said in this question I think it comes from pressures outside of ourselves, growing up in a society where white pop culture is the desirable norm. I do think that’s changing slowly. 

I don’t feel like I particularly have expectations of others at football or elsewhere, but I do think football is becoming a more inclusive environment and we are seeing more South Asian women attending. Sometimes it can feel like one step forward and two steps back, but I think it’s moving in the right direction.

For you, what would be the sign that football games and its spaces have finally become a welcoming and inviting space where British fans of colour can feel like they finally belong? 

I have seen some signs of this, it’s great when you see an away crowd at football which has lots of diversity, I always notice that Arsenal in particular have a diverse fan base. Seeing groups of women at games together of all races and abilities. I would really like to see an end to homophobic chanting, this seems quite prevalent at the moment and is something else people like to put under the banner of ‘banter’.

Many of us are learning that if we want to see ourselves represented, we might have to be the ones who do it. As both the writer and performer of ENG-ER-LAND, can you share any advice or insight to your creative process and the main challenges of self-production? 

This is exactly right. I felt like I hadn’t seen a story on stage about someone of mixed South Asian and white heritage for whom their white side was quite dominant. Since writing the piece and performing it I’ve been surprised by how many people have reached out to say this is representative of their story and that it’s been good to see that on stage and identify– this means the world to me and I hope inspires others to tell their stories, as we need to hear more diverse stories in the UK. In terms of advice I would say just go for it, don’t think that what you have to say isn’t important or worry that people won’t care. Then before sharing it I think it’s really important to get support and make sure you are comfortable and safe with what you are sharing. 

I was fortunate to get Arts Council Funding and so have had an incredible team working with me since the beginning, not only Rikki, but Alistair my co-producer who is also my creative partner for other projects, Nadia our amazing choreographer who is herself mixed race, and my dramaturg Milli who helped so much in deciding what needed to be in the piece to serve the story and what didn’t, and also realising it’s ok to dramatise parts, too. I think time and space is so important to a creative process. Unfortunately, as artists this is not something that we always have. 

ENG-ER-LAND is one of my projects where I do think I’ve had quite a bit of breathing space and support, and I think that’s reflected in the final product. Challenges of self-production - there is a lot to do! I’ve co-produced this with Alistair Wilkinson (AD of WoLab) so we have shared the load and they have done a lot of the admin-intense stuff like contracting. It’s definitely different from being an actor in other people’s shows and like most things there are both pros and cons. I like the ownership and direct contact with venues but when it’s getting near showtime it’s important to be able to step into that role of performer and just focus on that.

We are so excited for the tour you’re about to go on, we’d love to know if you have any future projects coming up that you’re able to share with us?

Thank you so much! And thanks for speaking to me and offering these brilliant questions which have really challenged me to think and reflect. Alongside the ENG-ER-LAND tour, I am currently making my first short film Devi – देवी which I wrote and also star in, alongside Nina Wadia and Jonny Fines. Devi – देवी will be on Sky Arts in Spring 2022, after I received a commission from the channel in partnership with Coventry City of Culture, The Space Arts, Shoot Festival and Arts Council England. They commissioned ten films around the theme of ‘Unlocked - what does it mean to be free’ and my film is about a woman of mixed heritage struggling with addiction who meets a South Asian Woman called Devi working in an off-licence who has a profound effect on her. 

It’s about addiction, obviously, but also very much about the things we were talking about earlier, reconnecting with all parts of yourself and your identity and accepting yourself so you can start on a path to recovery. The film is directed by Alistair Wilkinson and produced by Tobi Kyeremateng– once again I’ve been so lucky to work with the most incredible team.

Hannah Kumari can be found on Twitter and on her website. ENG-ER-LAND will be touring to over 15 venues across the country. For more information and ticket details see -
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