“What am I doing here? Do I belong here? Did I make a mistake coming here?”
Rapper and actor Riz Ahmed asks these questions in The Long Goodbye, a livestreamed show based on his 2020 album of the same name.
The star was first seen as an acting talent to watch when he played one of the incompetent would-be suicide bombers from Sheffield in satirical comedy Four Lions. He went on to win an Emmy for HBO crime series The Night Of and has starred in Nightcrawler, winning a second Emmy nomination last year for The Sound of Metal, in which he plays a rock drummer coping with the trauma of losing his hearing.
Ahmed has spoken out about the lack of diversity on TV, an issue which gets a passing mention during The Long Goodbye.
However, he has even bigger fish to fry here. The album explores the experience of British Asians in the context of a right wing Brexit and rise of the far right.
The livestreamed version of his stage show of The Long Goodbye was made in a deserted music hall theatre in San Francisco while Ahmed was working in Hollywood last year. It is being shown currently as part of the online version of Manchester International Festival, who co-commissioned the piece, but the planned 2020 performances fell victim to coronavirus restrictions.
The piece is mainly filmed solo backstage by Ahmed on his mobile phone, which gives it a very intimate and almost confessional feel.
Ahmed’s honest intensity and his likeable persona draw in the viewer and keep you focused on his story.
Performances of his songs are cleverly woven into the monologue.
Ahmed says during the show that his brothers and sisters are wondering whether they should stay in Britain and whether future generations of their family will even be welcome at all, or if they should cut their losses and go now.
He begins by talking about people asking, “Where are you from?”. And, when he says his birthplace of Wembley in north west London, they press, “But where are you from really?”
He looks back at how the same three questions which he poses above were also issues for his grandfather, who was a poet. He was forced to flee the communal violence that broke out during the bloody partition of India in 1947, when the country was divided along religious lines and Pakistan was created as a Muslim-majority state.
He uprooted his family once more and came to Britain when another bloody conflict in Pakistan in 1971 led to the creation of Bangladesh.
The next generation then had to face their own dilemmas about whether to stay here – referencing the 1979 riots in Southall in West London in opposition to the fascist National Front, Ahmed says they decided to stay and fight.
His explanation of the damage caused by British imperialism and colonialism in India, and how the country’s wealth was stolen, is neatly referenced in the history of the paisley design of his coat. The distinctive ancient teardrop pattern was brought by the East India Trading Company to Paisley in Scotland and India was forced to buy the Scottish reproductions of the designs, he says.
Ahmed is not offering any detailed answers in this piece about what to do to combat racism today. Instead, what he does so brilliantly is to voice with clarity the anger of young British Asians and Muslims who have faced racism and Islamophobia.
The Long Goodbye is available to livestream until midnight on March 1. It’s on a ‘pay what you feel’ basis, with suggested prices starting at £5.