Refugee actors highlight issues of gender and identity with new play ‘And Then Came Spring’

·4-min read
Malay Mail
Malay Mail

PETALING JAYA, July 19 — For 13-year-olds Madina Hussaini and Shamim Sepas, acting has been a process of gaining self-confidence.

Speaking to Malay Mail amid an intense bout of rehearsals for their upcoming play And Then Came Spring, the pair were far from shy in sharing their love for the stage (as well as the sci-fi series Stranger Things), “Of course I’m not shy now!” exclaimed Madina.

“My first time on stage was in 2019, I’ve changed a lot since then!” Shamim chimed in with her trick at staying calm in front of an audience: “What still helps when I’m nervous is to just be the character I am playing and pretend that nobody else is watching - it’s just me and the stage.” Afghans Madina and Shamim are the youngest members of Parastoo Theatre, a refugee-led theatre troupe based in Kuala Lumpur.

While Shamim has always dreamed of acting, theatre was an entirely accidental endeavour for Madina.

The play's cast and crew taking a break from day long rehearsals at the Five Arts Centre in GMBB, Kuala Lumpur.
The play's cast and crew taking a break from day long rehearsals at the Five Arts Centre in GMBB, Kuala Lumpur.

The play's cast and crew taking a break from day long rehearsals at the Five Arts Centre in GMBB, Kuala Lumpur.

When an actress had to drop out from a production just a week before opening night, Madina asked if she could be her replacement.

“At first everyone thought I couldn’t do it, but I had been watching their rehearsals every night, so I already knew a lot of the lines,” said Madina.

“After I went onstage, everyone was like, wow, you rocked it, and it felt really good to hear that.” The lightheartedness of the teenage thespians belied the heavy subject matter of their current play, which explores issues of gender, child marriage and the lives of refugees - all issues that have been a part of their lives.

“The story of And Then Came Spring is not a new story, it’s something that’s happening every day in my country, Afghanistan,” said Madina.

“I think in a way it is easy for me to act in this play, because I know what it feels like.

“The scenes we are acting out are things that have either happened to me or my friends, it’s real life for us.” Real stories of real lives Since its founding in 2017, Parastoo Theatre has staged numerous shows exploring issues affecting refugees in Malaysia.

Its latest production, And Then Came Spring, is its most ambitious one yet and is a result of a collaboration with Instant Cafe Theatre (ICT).

Directed by Parastoo Theatre’s co-founder Saleh Sepas, the play follows 14-year-old Nazanin and her life as child bride in Kabul, Afghanistan, before arriving at another country as a refugee.

While the story is one laced with tragedy, the actresses of Parastoo - all refugees themselves - are not interested in playing victims awaiting their saviours.

Rather, they hope that by telling the unvarnished stories of their homelands, they can connect to audiences on a human level.

“If you ask me how this role affects me, I think we’ve all been affected by these issues before even coming to the play,” said 19-year-old Farzana Hussaini, who plays the role of Nazanin.

“By acting these stories out, I feel like I can raise the voices of those who have been silenced; I’m telling my story too.

“Child marriage is an issue all around the world, and we need to talk about it if it’s ever going to stop.” Farzana added that she channels the pain she feels over these stories into her theatre work.

“Acting gives me a sense of joy and freedom, I feel free in expressing myself,” she said.

“No matter how angry I feel or how much I shout, nobody will tell me that I’m being ‘too much’ - you can never be ‘too much’ for the stage.” Fellow actress Masooma Sepas, 30, agreed with this sentiment, although she admitted that she sometimes needs to step away to momentarily forget about “these sad stories”.

ICT artistic director and dramaturg for the play Jo Kukathas stands in for an actor during rehearsals for 'And Then Came Spring', at the Five Arts Centre in GMBB, Kuala Lumpur.
ICT artistic director and dramaturg for the play Jo Kukathas stands in for an actor during rehearsals for 'And Then Came Spring', at the Five Arts Centre in GMBB, Kuala Lumpur.

ICT artistic director and dramaturg for the play Jo Kukathas stands in for an actor during rehearsals for 'And Then Came Spring', at the Five Arts Centre in GMBB, Kuala Lumpur.

A former news presenter in Afghanistan, Masooma currently finds solace in the young children she teaches at a refugee school in Kuala Lumpur.

“It’s the small things that help me with my mental health; the way the children in my classes make me laugh, playing with my own children, even cooking,” she said.

“At the same time, acting makes me feel less helpless - it gives me power.

The actors of Parastoo also face a challenge common to many artists when they speak out about the problematic aspects of their communities.

“There will be a few who say things like, why do you always need to show the bad side of Afghanistan, why must you show others your misery?” said Farzana.

“But these are real stories of real people, and we’re just educating others about the fact that these stories exist.” And Then Came Spring will be staged at the Damansara Performing Arts Centre (DPAC) from July 22 to July 24.

Malay Mail is the media partner for the play.

Tickets to the show can be purchased here at DPAC’s website here.

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