“The Altab Ali Story” by playwright Julie Begum, is nothing if not an eye opener. It is shockingly revealing to anyone unaware of the tumultuous history of the Bengali community in London. It is moving and engaging, yet remains light-hearted in tone, a challenge for any writer tackling such a sensitive subject.
The evening performance was one of four events that took place on Altab Ali Day, which is celebrated annually on May 4. His murder in 1978 in St Mary’s Park, Whitechapel, which has since been named after him, sparked outrage across London.
A spate of vicious racially motivated killings inspired the Bengali and many other communities in London to come together and unite against racism. The Altab Ali Story, and indeed Altab Ali Day, strives to encourage awareness of such racism – prejudice that still exists in some areas today.
The play, performed at the Brady Arts Centre in Whitechapel, seems slightly geared towards a younger audience, but the theatre is full of adults – possibly key members of the Bangladeshi society. It is clear from early on that the community spirit remains strong and powerful in Whitechapel.
The stage is simple, divided in two between 1978 London (garish shirts and all), and rural Bangladesh. One side (London) features a small table and chairs, a few of those shirts hanging, and a funky carpet, whilst the other has a small fire with a pot resting on it, a stool woven from rushes and a washing line with sarongs hanging, drying in the sun.
Although the set is basic, it does its job perfectly, and upon entering the theatre the music playing in the background takes the audience to Bangladesh.
Reminiscent of a Bollywood movie (although perhaps not as they are banned in Bangladesh), the opening scene is charming. Actor Delwar Hossain Dilu bowls in loudly, singing jovially to deliver the mail to Altab’s mother, played by Saida Tania.
Dilu talks of how so many young men have been sent from Bangladesh to earn money for their families. Tania says her son is one of them, gone to London to “earn his fortune”.
The story moves swiftly on to Altab Ali, played by Porag Hasan, and his friend Dabir Miah (Dilu) in their home in London, dancing around the room to ABBA’s “Money, Money, Money”. Dabir warns: “We should not walk past that pub on the corner, the one where people are always drinking outside. They will start on us if they see us, brother.” Altab is dismssive: “Why should we go the long way round?”
The three cast members sing between each of the scene changes and it is clear that music and lyrics are important tools in telling the story. At times, some of the audience members sing along with the cast.
Next, we see Dabir devastated in his room. Altab has been murdered and Dabir talks of the community’s decision to take a stand, and march to Downing Street. When we see the mother’s reaction to the news, it is difficult not to share her grief.
Up to this point the show has been relatively light-hearted and simple – but suddenly the audience is reduced to shocked silence by Tania’s skilful performance.
We end with a curtain call by the cast, followed by the start of a chant in Bengali. Most of the audience rises and begins to sing with the cast, and they are gradually pulling audience members up to the stage.
This play is rousing and atmospheric; the audience is not simply watching a performance. It is plugging into a collective memory, a collective pain, and a desire for community and culture to be respected.
It is hard to leave the performance without feeling emotionally charged. The actors captured the essence of 1978 and the power of protest that at least began to bring about change in the East End.