Shanon Shah is the national coordinator of Faith for the Climate and the author of The Making of a Gay Muslim: Religion, Sexuality and Identity in Malaysia and Britain. He is also part of the Waterloo Festival’s programme committee and sings in the St John’s choir during Sunday service.
There’s something about theatre and its capacity to deepen discussions about social justice that has always gripped me. I had goose-bumps when I first saw live productions of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. And the impact of reading Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (about the Civil Rights era), Anna Deavere Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 (about the riots that followed police brutality against Rodney King) and Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman (about British colonialism in Nigeria), has stayed with me over the years.
In my own work on LGBTQ+ issues, I’ve addressed social justice as a singer-songwriter, activist, journalist, academic sociologist, and playwright. My first full-length play, Air Con, addressed homophobia and transphobia in an all-boys boarding school in Malaysia. It was a surprise box-office hit and earned several accolades, including Best Malay Script at the 7th Boh Cameronian Arts Awards.
Not all art is created equal, though. Since Air Con, I’ve come across numerous atrocious attempts to tell the “Islam and homosexuality” story here in Britain and elsewhere. In fact, there have been copious, insipid storylines about Islam, full stop – on stage, cinema and television. These stories especially fall flat when they attempt to expose supposedly hard-hitting truths about Islam and Muslims by recycling tired anti-Muslim tropes.
Not so with The Funeral Director by Iman Qureishi. Winner of the 2018 Papatango New Writing Prize, the play begins with a distraught gay English man asking a Muslim funeral parlour to help bury his Muslim partner, who recently committed suicide. The funeral director declines, and what follows is an unflinching look at how the resulting furore puts each of the characters through hell. No spoilers, but what makes this play special is that every character is fully realised – from the grieving gay spouse to the Muslim couple and their conflicted lawyer.
I watched this at Southwark Playhouse with my beloved, Giles, and a devout, straight Muslim friend, Uzma. By the end of the first act, all three of us were in floods of tears. Never had Uzma and I seen a play that expressed our deepest hurts and frustrations as Muslims whilst also respecting all that we held dear about Islam. The Funeral Director expanded my faith in the potential of theatre to showcase difficult stories without becoming preachy and without dumbing down much-needed social analysis.
As part of Pride Month 2020, Crossbeam and Waterloo Festival are presenting a blog, featuring LGBTQIA+ artists and those who hold LGBTQIA+ art dear to them.
Josh Mock, curating the series, writes:
"It is my hope that by sharing the stories of diverse artists, we can appreciate and celebrate all those who strive to use art as a vehicle for LGBTQIA+ inclusion, activism, and advocacy."