Arrivals

The experiences of immigrants to Northern Ireland are succinctly expressed in five witty and hard-hitting plays

'Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these,' chants a sloshed punter in a Belfast bar, indicating his breasts. He pulls a face, slants his eyes and speaks in a high-pitched, sing-song voice – he genuinely thinks he is being hilarious.

But the shocked faces of the Romanian doctor, Chinese university student and Indian soon-to-be PSNI officer – with whom this numbskull thinks he has struck up an instant friendship – suggest otherwise. 'Only sleggin',' he grins, insisting that he meant no harm and that it is just a funny little rhyme that he and his pals used to recite at primary school. That's OK, then.

James Meredith's 'Don't Get Me Wrong' is one of five short, thought-provoking new plays, developed and produced under the generic title Arrivals by the inter-cultural theatre company Terra Nova, in association with Accidental Theatre.

Individually and collectively, they create a collage of reality-based experiences – both negative and positive – as related by some of the growing wave of immigrants to this part of the world.

As the peace process slowly renders Northern Ireland a place as ostensibly 'normal' as anywhere else, it has come as something of a shock to many dyed-in-the-wool residents to wake up and discover that their new neighbours have a different coloured skin, worship unfamiliar gods and/or speak in other languages.

Under the direction of Terra Nova founder Andrea Montgomery – who was born in India and raised in Thailand, Switzerland and Indonesia – these neatly presented, searching little pieces cut deep into the consciousness and prompt a variety of emotional responses.

The dramaturg is Emily DeDakis, herself an American with Greek family connections, who, over a challengingly brief three-day period has coaxed from five Northern Irish writers five succinctly expressed snapshots of what it means to be a foreign arrival into a long-established, largely homogenous society.

Meredith's play produces both the loudest laughter and the loudest gasps of the evening, in his shockingly amusing take on an unexpected cultural encounter. Jim Doran's perfectly executed broth-of-a-boy Michael is drowning his sorrows on the evening of his father's funeral. He is alone, without friends or family to console him.

In search of a bit of company, he lights on three young people who have gathered for a meeting of the Belfast branch of the IRC: International Relations Club. He cracks a feeble joke about them not wanting to be mistaken for members of another organisation beginning IR… They do not laugh. But this is just the start.

Michael's tasteless 'sleggin'' goes from bad to worse until Romanian Irena (the crisply expressive Cristina Catalina) turns the tables on him. With a nod towards her creamy complexion, Michael remarks that she will probably fit into Northern Irish society better than her Chinese and Indian companions, but is left speechless when she cuts the ground from under him in perfect English and with a wit that could strip paint.

As with Paul McMahon's 'Glass House' – in which a plate of curried chips is traded for a Union flag – and John Morrison's 'Celebration', crude expressions of subconscious racism and racial stereotyping repeatedly take the breath away, especially when viewed beside the implied open-minded articulacy endemic within minority communities.

 

Deirdre Cartmill's 'No Paths That Are Ending' pitches traditional Catholicism against the vaguely held spiritual beliefs of a young Indian teacher, whose wife has just given birth to a sickly child. Her bedside is occupied by her family, consigning her husband to the waiting room.

As the sound of the Rosary drifts out, he convinces himself that he has no place beside his wife and son, until his ostensibly disapproving father-in-law joins him in an awkward shared moment of prayer and informs him of the boy's chosen name, Ahmed.

In a few short minutes, Morrison's play skilfully creates a maze of nuanced complexities of nationality, familial relationships and identity. He introduces Ellen, a Chinese widow, who grew up in Hong Kong and whose late Asian husband was expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin. Lonely but hopeful of a blossoming friendship with her neighbour Jackie (Doran), Michelle Yim nicely catches the breathy anxiety of a foreign woman caught up in the cultural tangle on a staunchly loyalist estate.

No amount of flying Northern Ireland banners and Union Jack bunting can convince anyone of her deeply felt Britishness. Not even her mixed-race son Sami (Raj Bajaj) goes along with it. Mistaking Jackie's bluff bonhomie for something more serious, she learns the hard way that their friendship is only permissible behind closed doors, away from the scrutiny of his friends in the Lodge.

The evening's most intriguing offering is Chinese-American Shannon Yee's 'Under Any Other Duties', a disquieting play that offers no easy answers but poses some tantalising questions. Has Sonia, an attractive young Romanian woman, been invited to Belfast for a modelling shoot?

When she helps a lost Chinese girl, what potential horrors await in the squalid street to which she mistakenly directs her? To whom is Sonia's uber-cool Indian co-model speaking on his mobile phone? What are they arranging and what plans have suddenly been changed?

The meat of the story hovers beneath the cleanly written plot lines, leaving one longing for this vivid series of snapshots to be developed to its full potential.

Within a minimal set of white metal chairs and floaty, multi-purpose back panels, Montgomery and composer Anthony Toner have created a satisfyingly tense, five-sided portrait, launching a welcome theatrical conversation about what it is to live in a slowly evolving pluralist society.

It now only needs more members of our minority communities to become part of the audience and to develop the confidence to step into the spotlight as actors and writers of the future.

Arrivals tours to Riverside Theatre, Coleraine, February 20; Market Place Theatre, Armagh, February 21; Down Arts Centre, Downpatrick, February 22.