National Theatre Wales’s De Gabay will connect the streets of Butetown with the global Somali diaspora over a three-day performance.
De Gabay (The Poem) will be performed over three days in the Butetown area of Cardiff, focusing on the lives of its young Somali poets and the generations that preceded them.
Beginning on Friday 1 March, audiences will be invited to move from busy streets to private living rooms to watch both intimate and large-scale performances, including two magnificent parades. Films produced by members of the community will connect the production to a wider audience across the world.
John McGrath, National Theatre Wales’s artistic director, says: “This is a hugely ambitious project that is very close to our hearts, and we want to share the experience of making it – and the joy of experiencing the finished project – with as many people as possible.”
But the ideas for the performance were borne from a group of young Somali poets based in Cardiff with no prior background in theatre. Hassan Panero, Ahmed Hassan, Ali Goolyard and Ahmed Yusuf approached National Theatre Wales 19 months ago with a joint vision to write a play about their experiences of growing up in Cardiff as young Somalis.
Catrin Rogers, Media Officer for National Theatre Wales, speaks about what makes De Gabay special and the concept behind participatory performances:
Sandals to boots
I meet 25-year-old Hassan Panero to find out more about De Gabay’s lifecycle. Warm, intelligent and quietly spoken, writing has always been a hobby for Hassan. But it is only over the last 19 months that it has also become his career. I ask him to tell me more about the story behind De Gabay.
He speaks eagerly: “So basically it was National Theatre of Wales, they do participatory performances. We said, ‘We would like to write a play’, so they said, ‘Write one and bring it to the office’, so we did, and they loved it”.
The charitable foundation Calouste Gulbenkian awarded National Theatre Wales funding of £175,000 to develop the production over a two-year process. Now, with only three months to go until the performance, the excitement has not waned and Hassan speaks passionately about its themes.
“De Gabay’s about the stories that come, that develop, in-between, from the sea to the land, and from sandals to boots,” he says. “Expressing it through theatre, others will tune into your frequency and feel that you are on the same wavelength and you feel that you’re finally not on your own.”
The Somali language has a long, rich tradition of oral poetry. The subject matters of the poems are endless, ranging from love to loss, sorrow to joy, victory to defeat and hardship to revolution. Hassan explains to me that the very nature of Somali poetry is multi-dimensional.
“Without downgrading poetry in other countries, it would have one angle, whereas Somali poetry would have 50 angles,” he says. “People will think it’s a love story – but really, it’s a revolutionary story. There’s hidden messages within the poetry”.
The layered depth of Somali poetry is linked to the oral culture. It wasn’t until 1972 that Somali was given an official written form, using the Roman alphabet.
Poetry may be something the De Gabay script writers are familiar with, but Hassan points out that sharing their personal poems was not easy at first. “We’re all friends and family and we’ve grown up together and it was like, ‘I didn’t know that person wrote poetry’, until we all opened up and showed each other and we encouraged each other,” he says.
De Gabay has become a tool for exploring and expressing the sometimes uncomfortable cultural space occupied by many young Somalis. Hassan tries to explain: “Us being young Somalis in the history of Wales, we feel like we’re in-betweeners. When we go back to our country, we’re foreigners and when we’re here, we’re foreigners”.
I ask how important their cultural backgrounds were in writing De Gabay – and Hassan replies that culture is the anchor of the performance.
“It’s what needs to be understood, by us first and foremost,” he explains. “Because we are not in sync with our culture – we’ve got a different culture to the Somalis in Somalia, and our culture is a mix of Welsh culture and Somali. So it’s expressing that – it’s like a remix of two songs”.
As well as being a cultural exploration, De Gabay also maps the relationships between the young and old, bridging the different generations.
Writing the play has been a participatory activity, engaging all the different age groups and segments of the community. “We conducted workshops, assemblies, idea exchanges – it’s a hands-on project, focusing on the present,” Hassan emphasises.
All of De Gabay’s writers felt that the good history of the Somali diaspora was unheard of unless people searched for it.
Hassan leans forward, looking earnest. “And what we decided to do, we could talk about the old stuff, but we think it’s more important to emphasise the new stuff because that needs to be documented, so instead of bringing out a revision, let’s bring out something new.”
Cardiff’s Somali community from past to present: