Britain is one of the most multicultural societies in Europe but Brexit and the momentum of the Black Lives Matter campaign have revealed simmering tensions over race.
Global perspectives and challenges
Digital, creative and cultural
Dr Mary Mazzilli
Britain’s imperial past and former membership of the EU has made it one of the most multicultural societies in Europe. But Brexit revealed simmering tensions over race, and the momentum of the Black Lives Matter campaign has shown the UK's not always a welcoming, inclusive and equal society. Challenging perceptions of the migrant experience is more important than ever and one Essex playwright is using drama to uncover the human stories.
“Migration is perceived as negative. We are told the country must reduce migration, that migrants come here to take our jobs, and that migrants don’t do enough to integrate, but that’s not my story,” explained Dr Mary Mazzilli, from the Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies.
Inspired by her own experience and in response to Brexit, Italian playwright Dr Mazzilli wanted to challenge the misconceptions.
She wanted to tell human stories and help change teaching practice so that children growing up in 21st century Britain understand the true meaning of migration.
With funding from the University and Arts Council England, Dr Mazzilli set out to write a play based on real experiences.
Priority Seating is a powerful play challenging the negative perceptions, held by some, about migrants. Using human testimony from interviews with people from Chinese, Filipino, Polish and Syrian communities, Dr Mazzilli tells a story set in a train carriage, where there is only one seat. Four migrants trying to reach home must face questions about who has priority, who does not, and who decides.
“As a playwright, I usually do some interviews as part of my research but the process for this was different because the interviews are the play. It is their words you hear.”
"Priority Seating speaks not only to the British experience. It reflects what is happening all around the world."
Dr Mazzilli’s interviews revealed common themes across the communities, as well as differences.
She found that almost all spoke positively of their experiences at first, only revealing experiences of discrimination after searching questions.
Drawing from her own experience, she sees differences between those who come from the EU and those from outside Europe. "As an EU migrant myself I can say that at times we have a greater sense of entitlement whereas those who I spoke to who had come from outside Europe felt they would always be seen as migrants.”
She also saw conflict between the groups which she believes stems from the natural survival instinct to create boundaries and protect your interests when you create a home.
The Chinese, Filipino and Syrian migrants especially wanted to integrate: “Their stories illustrated that they have their migrant communities, around which their social lives are based but they want their children to have a place in this country. They all try their best to make themselves British.”
Most strikingly, the interviews showed that home is a flexible notion.
“We often perceive home as something fixed. We attach a lot of importance to a building. But for migrants home is not so much a place, but a connectivity, a community, and place where their loved ones are,” Dr Mazzilli explained.
"The workshops successfully engaged the students, who used the material as a means to help them reflect on their own condition."
Priority Seating is providing the education tool that schools need to help pupils understand human experiences of migration.
Dr Mazzilli has developed an educational pack, which she has delivered in schools in north Essex and Suffolk. So far she has reached around 150 pupils from year 6 through to year 13.
Workshops with A Level and GCSE students have been discussion-led, with pupils examining and performing extracts from the play. Pupils in junior schools watch extracts from the play and write their own dramatic responses.
Stefanie Savva, from Ipswich Academy, said: “The workshops successfully engaged the students, who used the material as a means to help them reflect on their own condition. As a teacher, I gained a better understanding of the students’ situation and this helped to develop my sensitivity to their cultural and social realities as children of migrant families. The workshop also made me more aware that using material that was so relatable to the students’ experiences enhances engagement and learning.”
“Theatre is the ideal medium for challenging misconceptions,” explained Dr Mazzilli, “sharing a common space, in a live situation, is very powerful. And it gives people the opportunity to embody another’s experiences.”
“There is a global trend for national sentiment that is quite negative,” explained Dr Mazzilli, “Brexit is just a symptom of a bigger problem. Priority Seating speaks not only to the British experience. It reflects what is happening all around the world.”
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