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The stand-up comic talks about writing her new play, Mother Tongues from Farther Lands, with the help of women in Asian communities. The play, starring Shobna Gulati, Shobu Kapoor, Shyama Perera and Kershi herself, brings the funny and fearless monologues of these women to life on stage and explores our core human needs while stimulating the five senses in a celebration of British Asian culture.

How did the idea for Mother Tongues From Farther Lands come about?
The Southbank Centre in partnership with Alchemy national partners Black Country Touring, Cast Doncaster and Oldham Coliseum theatre commissioned me to devise and write a show working with the South Asian community. I chose to work with women. In part I was inspired by the global Women’s March in January. I wanted to give a voice to the diverse, beautiful, complex, courageous women who are the backbone of South Asian culture. All my work this year appears to be based in the gender agenda!

How easy is it to get people to open up about their lives?

Luckily my producer Dawinder Bansal already had connections to these women’s groups so had done the groundwork. When I arrived in the process I did a series of workshops with the women. I got them to warm up, do trust games and writing exercises, and shared my own memories and stories so that it would encourage them to share theirs. And of course I used my skills as a comedian to help relax everyone, including myself. I won’t lie – I was nervous about whether they would feel comfortable enough to open up to me. I need not have worried, as these wonderful women have been so incredibly welcoming, generous and giving. The experience has left an undeniably longlasting impact on me.

What’s the process of getting life experiences to become pieces performed on stage?

Since meeting all the women, their faces and stories have been running around in my head. I literally cannot get them out of my head. In writing the show I have taken inspiration from them, what they said, wore, talked about. Like most writers of course, I put myself in there as these are universal. The same themes came across the country. I want audience’s men and women to feel inspired by the show. The last part of the process is how my cast make the monologues their own. In that respect this show has removed the ego of the performer, as it’s totally a team effort from the women’s groups, the cast, my producer (also Asian), Southbank and myself. The women’s groups may not be with us physically on the stage but they stand alongside us as equals in many different ways. No spoilers – come see the show, but, for me, these women are the real stars.

Can you tell us about what it was like working with the group in Oldham?

I have an incredibly soft spot for the Oldham group. It was the first group I visited. I felt we are cut from the same cloth. Like me many of them come from a Pakistani heritage. They helped decide on the title of the show. I have thought about them a lot and stayed in touch with a few, who kindly shared more stories. I was excited to hear there were aspirations in the group to perform and write. I sincerely hope they follow their dreams. They are an incredibly bright, capable group who I truly believe can achieve anything. I’m in awe of them.

What do you think they will say about the show?

Ha! I really hope they like it and can see how a true story can be used to inspire a performance piece. I hope they enjoy the fusion of ideas from them, the cast and myself.

What’s next for the project?
I would love to work with more women’s groups and write more monologues inspired by these kickass women. It would be lovely if Mother Tongues from Farther Lands did a tour of the UK.

Mother Tongues from Farther Lands is at Oldham Coliseum Theatre on 11 May and at Cast, Doncaster, 3 June

Interact: Responses to Q&A: Sajeela Kershi

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