London has just witnessed something of a theatrical novelty: a play about young British Muslims by a young British Muslim. Alia Bano's highly acclaimed debut offering, Shades, recently staged as part of the Royal Court Theatre Young Writers programme, takes its audience on an enlightening journey through contemporary Muslim life. The play works to demystify the British Muslim community, giving it a voice and showing it through the eyes of the people that know it best.
Whether it's the Unveiled exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery or the Unheard Voices writers programme at the Royal Court, it seems that Londoners are increasingly interested in getting to grips with the Muslim world - what it stands for and how it works. "I think the interest all stems from 9/11 and the London attacks," Bano says. "You can't escape them, as much as I would like to. People want to know what the average Muslim thinks and what they do. There is a very heavy spotlight on Muslims. I feel that only one voice is being heard and only one side is being shown."
Determined to address the imbalance in the portrayal of Muslims, Bano applied for the Royal Court's Unheard Voices programme. Entry into the course does not guarantee public performance, but Bano's play was chosen to be developed further. "I wanted to write a play that distanced Muslims from fundamentalists," she says. "I don't deny that there are disagreements in the Muslim community, but the majority of practising Muslims that I know do not agree with those ideals. The challenge for these Muslims is to escape from the stigma. It is about breaking those stereotypes."
In terms of writing techniques and resources, the Royal Court project provided Bano with invaluable skills and a new way of looking at drama. "Programmes like the Young Writers Course and the Unheard Voices are a dream come true for people who don't have a key to the metaphorical stage door. I didn't know where the door was and I certainly didn't know how to get in. "I have always loved to read and from a young age I knew I wanted to write. I studied English literature at university and went into teaching. Reading helps you to become a good writer, you see how other writers have developed their novels, what structures they have used, how they have overcome challenges. There is a knowledge in books."
However, knowledge can also be found elsewhere, particularly in talking to experienced writers and the programme's emphasis on the development of practical skills. "As part of the course, we were encouraged to role play and to analyse language, always considering what makes a good play - not just what we liked, but why we liked it," she says. "In terms of character development, we would be asked to create a character and then would need to answer 50 questions on that character: who is her best friend? Where did she go to school? What food does she love? I learnt the importance of providing characters with a back story, a history, so that each one has a specific voice. That was my weakness before the programme. I could create characters, but I needed to make them more rounded."
The finished play explores the different voices operating within the broad spectrum of London's Muslim community. Its main protagonist is Sabrina, a university-educated young professional woman whose family hails from the north-west frontier of Pakistan. She is conscious of her age (mid-30s) and keen to find herself a husband. As an events organiser, Sabrina comes under fire for being "a Muslim in a white woman's job". She also finds herself asked to choose between her modern life as a western woman and acceptance in the Muslim community.
London theatreland can easily be viewed as being somewhat Eurocentric, but Bano dismisses the idea that being a Muslim has made it more difficult to find success. "It is hard for any young writer, regardless of ethnicity," she says. "Yes, it has taken a long time. For many years, I was scared of writing about my faith and the challenges of being a Muslim in Britain. One day, however, I stood up and thought, 'I'm proud to be a Muslim. Why should I be ashamed to write about this?'"
At the heart of the play lies the question, articulated by Sabrina, of how one can measure faith. It is a question that Bano is also uncertain about. "I don't know how to measure religiousness," she says. "I am a Pakistani Muslim. I believe in God. For me, faith in God is faith in God. I have a great respect for this faith. In Shades, I try to show that religion is about the goodness of the heart and not what you see on the surface."
In the play, Sabrina is asked to organise a fashion show in aid of Gaza and encounters Reza, a devout Muslim. Prejudice operates on both sides: she is as quick to brand him a killjoy as his family is to label her inferior. Their friendship works to shatter such preconceptions and brings together characters which at first seem contradictory. But in portraying such a variety of views within the community, does Bano worry that she may be alienating the very people she purports to represent?
"The play is called Shades," she explains. "I don't claim to speak for everybody. In fact, I can't claim to speak for anybody. "Through the character of Reza I have brought balance to the play, because he is essentially the good guy in the drama. He is not interested in violence and wishes to be regarded as both English and a follower of Islam. Shades is about challenging both sides of the spectrum and finding common ground. I wanted to show the general public Muslims on a day-to-day basis."