Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Riot

Written by Peter Mortimer
Directed by Darren Palmer
Cloud Nine Theatre Productions
Unity Theatre (18th-19th July 2008)


This fascinating, inspiring and well-produced work succeeded on just about every level, and was a surely a highlight this year's Arabic Arts Festival. Telling the story of the 1930 Mill Dam riot in South Shields, it mixes humour with invention and political insight to devastating effect.

At the time, the fighting was described as a 'race riot', between Yemeni migrant workers and white merchant seamen. However, as Riot shows, this is a simplification. Confrontation can never be caused by mere ethnic differences, though they are often disastrously used as a point of identification by people struggling over scarce resources.

Riot follows the South Shields life of new migrant Yussuf (Amir Boutrous), as he bids to earn a living in a strange new land. He is given shelter by a Muslim boarding house keeper (Neji Nejah), who bends the rules to find Yussuf employment as a ship fireman. Abused by his white co-workers, Yussuf soon discovers a talent for boxing, winning the love of local girl Thelma (Janine Leigh-Allen) and the admiration of a Communist Party member organising the Yemeni workers.

But the Great Depression unfolds, and conditions begin to worsen for the working people of South Shields. The Seamen's union leader (Paul Court) is firmly in the pocket of the Shipping Federation boss (Jim Kitson), so the struggle for employment tragically breaks out in a racist form, with white workers attacking the class conscious Arab immigrants.

All this sounds very dour as I type it, but thanks to the imaginative writing of Peter Mortimer and the lively direction of Darren Palmer, it is anything but. With another massive economic crisis looming, and union bosses seeking to divert class struggle along nationalist lines far more than they did in 1930, there are important lessons to be learned about who the real enemies are.

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