IDENTITY ISSUES: Aryana Ramkhalawon as Ayesha in The Funeral Director (Pic by: The Other Richard)

BY LAUREN CODLING

A “heartfelt” play exploring a gay Muslim woman coming to terms with her identity premiered in south London earlier this month.

The Funeral Director is centred around Ayesha, a director at a Muslim funeral parlor. When she is visited by Tom, who is looking to organise his Muslim boyfriend’s funeral, Ayesha is
faced with dilemmas relating to her faith, community and sexuality.

Described as an “incisive and heartfelt story of sexuality, gender and religion in 21st century Britain,” the story was the winner of the Papatango New Writing Prize in July.

Although the play mainly explores homosexuality in the Muslim community, the show’s writer, Iman Qureshi, highlighted the fact that the stigma was not just unique to this group.

For instance, the law graduate followed a news story regarding Christian business owners who had refused their services to gay people when she was conducting research for The Funeral Director.

“Homophobia is clearly something that is still prevalent in many cultures and religions, and Muslim communities are no exception,” she told Eastern Eye. “But I do believe attitudes are changing, slowly, sometimes frustratingly slowly, but still, enough to give me hope.”

Maanuv Thiara (Zeyd), Aryana Ramkhalawon (Ayesha) and Jessica Clark (Janey) star in The Funeral Director

The play is Qureshi’s first full length debut. She describes herself as “incredibly lucky” to have a play opening, as well as having access to an “amazing” cast and crew.

Admitting she once believed no one would ever produce it, the story was one which would not leave Qureshi.

“And I thought, well even if it’s never produced, at least I’ll get it out of my system, so I can then go on to write a more marketable play,” she revealed. “I suppose it just goes to show that if your writing is true to you, that won’t go unnoticed.”

Previously, the 32-year-old has had short plays or limited runs commissioned or produced by various outlets including the BBC.

Qureshi, who was born in Pakistan but now lives in south London, believes we are very used to hearing “one kind of Muslim voice”.

Just because a voice is Muslim, it does not mean it needs to deal with specifically ‘Muslim issues’, she noted.

Iman Qureshi is the writer behind The Funeral Director

Earlier this year, fellow playwright and Doctor Who writer Vinay Patel suggested introducing an award which would be designed to recognise South Asian creative work in the UK.

Qureshi agreed it would create opportunities for writers and allow them to “write about anything they want to write about, and not just what they think might get them recognised by a white middle class mainstream”.

She thinks it will show people that South Asians have incredibly diverse stories to tell.

“Often you see theatres programme one ‘south Asian’ play dealing with ‘south Asian issues’, and nine plays by white writers that deal with everything from climate change to the housing crisis, to relationships, to yoga,” she said.

“And you’re like, why can’t a south Asian write about climate change? Climate change is universal and affects us all equally, so why are only white writers getting those slots?”

The Funeral Director will be showing at Southwark Playhouse until November 24. It will be touring across the UK until March 30.

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