News Story

By Sara Khan

Before working at Hackney Empire, I visited often with my uncle to see glittering pantos or all kinds of music. But as a young adult, I started to go to shows on my own and enjoyed theatre, opera and all the variety Hackney Empire offers. Although I would have loved to go with my best friend, let’s call her Aisha, she didn’t really feel like theatre was for her.

‘They’ll stare, I’ll stick out, what would I wear?’

I reassured Aisha that Hackney Empire wasn’t like that at all! It feels like a home and somewhere everyone in the community has a place in, no matter what their background is.

"There are theatre-makers that see potential in underrepresented stories, and give them a voice in a world waiting to listen."

Unfortunately it wasn’t enough to convince someone who last went to a theatre on a school trip many years ago, and any presumptions as an adult came from stereotypes or negative experiences.

Until… A Thousand Splendid Suns. 5 years ago, this May.

A Thousand Splendid Suns sign outside Hackney Empire

A Thousand Splendid Suns was based on Khaled Hossaini’s heartbreaking, bestselling novel of the same name and adapted by Ursula Rani Sarma. I realised I had found a bridge between Aisha and theatre, with something familiar to bring them together. She was already a fan of Khaled Hosseini as we read his books 10 years before, so I was excited to tell her there was now an adaption of it, and at Hackney Empire! But surprisingly, before I could even tell her, she told me!

Word of the adaption soared through the grapevine of the Muslim community, and I finally saw that first buzzing spark of interest in theatre in Aisha. She even booked the tickets herself and organised the whole afternoon out!

A Thousand Splendid Suns at Hackney Empire from the Dress Circle

On the day of the performance when we reached Hackney Empire, I never saw her take so many pictures. The entrance, the palm trees, the posters - the foyer widening her eyes, and then I heard it - the gasp when she entered the auditorium, and a wash of red Victorian elegance saturating her with joy. When we got to our seats, I told her to look up... When she saw the twinkling stars, it was almost as though there were stars in her eyes too - she leaned over the balcony so much to get a good shot I had to grab her!

"It was about feeling seen, feeling heard and being represented somewhere that once felt out of bounds."

A Thousand Splendid Suns ensemble performing at Hackney Empire, May 2019
Credit: Pamela Raith Photography 2019

During the performance, Aisha and I felt every emotion under the sun. It was a perfect introduction to theatre as an adult. The set took us far away from Hackney to a war-torn Afghanistan and followed two women who formed an unlikely friendship whilst struggling to survive. In the programme notes, author Khaled Hosseini wrote “what happened in Afghanistan is a war which is ongoing. And women suffered disproportionately – they suffered at every turn and they suffered deeper than men did in many ways”.

It deeply touched her that a story about the struggles of Muslim women in Asia was brought to life here, and although it was emotional, the excitement of the representation was so evident.

The A Thousand Splendid Suns company performing at Hackney Empire

‘I never thought I’d see so many people who look like me on a stage’ she whispered at one point. When the characters first switched from English to speaking Farsi, it was ‘no way!’.

I personally had never ever seen so many people from my background in the audience before, and it was full to the brim. That was the day I realised it wasn’t just being familiar with the book that sparked Aisha’s interest - and that wasn’t the reason why it spread through the community either. It was about feeling seen, feeling heard and being represented somewhere that once felt out of bounds.

Aisha continued to visit theatres after that day, even if she wasn’t familiar with the stories. The seed that was planted in her at Hackney Empire showed her that there are theatre-makers and spaces that see potential in underrepresented stories, and give them a voice in a world waiting to listen.

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