Dr. Elizabeth Kuti
Director of Centre for Theatre Studies,
Usman Ali sent me his passionate and explosive plays by email, and with them, photographs of his theatre and productions. The correspondence between us has been a fragile connection across a dangerous and terrifying world. I have been moved, puzzled and shaken by Usman’s plays. They feel like a howl of anguish, but also the work of a fine dramatic poet, who knows and uses form – in language, in stagecraft – with great assurance. His plays are mysterious, and full of feeling, with the ambiguity of poetry – and yet they also speak of a yearning to connect, and to express in a vital, even a simple way, what it is to be human. I can imagine Usman’s work being very powerful in performance – although I have never seen it – because his writing is so visceral, so concrete, and so intensely physical: his plays feature bicycles, cigarettes, trees, water, fire, and dancing, as well as words. I’m humbled by Usman Ali’s knowledge of European classical myth and drama, not to mention the poetry of Walcott, Hughes, Frost and Akhmatova; I doubt there would be many European playwrights who would know so much about drama and literature outside their own sphere; British theatre can be extremely parochial, but Usman Ali seems to write from a deep well of experience and reading that is truly global, and must surely be rare. He also seems to write from a place of empathy and sensitivity. His characters suffer, and suffer extremely, but we feel that their author suffers with them. In his play The Odyssey, Usman Ali writes in horror of the ‘war against terror’ which has set Muslim against Muslim, has resulted in the deaths of countless thousands of innocents, and has unleashed a nightmare that has enveloped the whole of our world. Through theatre we can be united in sorrow at the atrocities that make us ashamed to be human, whatever nationality we have printed on our passport; and yet also united in joy at the lyricism, sweetness and possibility of our common existence. Usman Ali writes, in the introduction to his play The Last Metaphor, ‘Drama awakens compassion in the spectator’s sensibility for the characters by dissolving their shells of ego’. This is true of Usman Ali’s writing; as it is true of all great drama – which exists to take us out of the shell of our own ego. Reading Usman Ali’s work is to enter into a shared, empathetic experience; to leap across the false boundaries of nationality or ideology; to explore what it means to be human.