Alison MacAdam offers an American perspective on Belfast's new problem
Most American viewers today would not find The Indian unique. Two pasty-white thugs taunt and terrorize a gentle dark-skinned man at a bus stop. Americans have experienced this horror, perpetrated it, and agonized over it long enough that racism has become a common theme in art.
C21 has adapted The Indian Wants the Bronx, a 1960s play by American Israel Horovitz. The basic details have not been changed. It takes place at a dark, dingy bus stop, transferred from the Bronx to Belfast city centre. A turbaned man who appears to be Indian waits for a bus to his home on the Falls Road. He could be Pakistani, Turkish, or Bangladeshi, but to the two young tracksuit-wearing, shaved-headed thugs who encounter him, it doesn’t matter. In fact, the first time of many that the boys argue with each other, it’s over the question of whether he’s a ‘Turkey’ or an Indian.
The Indian’s power lies not in its universality, but in its relevance to Belfast today. The city was recently christened the ‘Race Hate Capital of Europe’. This anti-slogan comes when Belfast is making a valiant effort to build a world-class city on the rubble of sectarian violence. As Catholic and Protestant conflict subsides, more and more outsiders are entering NI and becoming targets. At the heart of this irony lies the suggestion that Belfast is still filled with hate – simply transferred to new targets. The Indian successfully exposes these insecurities.
C21 has managed to do much with little in an empty art gallery space. A graffiti-covered phone booth is the only set piece. The ground is littered with crumpled newspapers. Red-yellow lighting creates a seedy, night-time scene.
The Indian lives or dies on the believability of the two young actors playing the thuggish boys, and this pair scared me witless. Most terrifying is their inconsistency. One moment they are chatting playfully, the next punching their victim in the gut.
The man who plays the Indian speaks very little, and when he does, it’s in his native tongue. He is a fellow just trying to get home to his family. So we follow his eyes and his expressions, as he stares in terror at the boys, silently begging to be left alone.
Less successful is the quantity of yelling. As the boys yo-yo between pushing around the Indian and each other, the volume remains high. More power could be expressed in quieter words. It would give the play more dynamics – literally and metaphorically. Some of the most insidious racism is the quiet kind.
In the US, racism – shamefully – still festers, nearly 40 years since Horovitz’s play hit the New York stage. Placed in Belfast, The Indian is chilling once again. C21 should be commended for transforming one city’s old story into an authentic evocation of Belfast’s new problem.
The Indian is available to book and for tours. Contact Peter Quiqley on 028 90 798 591 or email C21@hotmail.co.uk.