|Image Credit: Danusia Samal
Danusia Samal is an actress, writer and singer from London. Among her writing credits are Out of Sorts, winner of Theatre503 International Playwriting Award; Busking It, inspired by Danusia’s experience as a London Underground busker and Decolonising History, in collaboration with SOAS and Tamasha Theatre. Danusia is currently working together on various projects with UK production companies, writing her first TV drama as part of the BBC’s TV Drama Writers Programme in 2019 and is currently commissioned by Soho Theatre as one of their 2020 Soho Six playwrights.
Tell us more about you and your artistic passions?
I started as an actress but writing has always propelled my acting. Maybe it is a naïve way of thinking but I believe that theatre and film work has the power to reach someone and change their mind, so I want to be part of projects that do that; that reach new audiences. I started writing because sometimes I was in shows where that wasn’t happening and I wanted more autonomy to create the work I wasn’t seeing in UK theatre.
Fortunately, that has started to change in the last few years. We are beginning to see a range of cultural experiences in the theatre now. As someone who is of mixed heritage, I am always interested in the grey areas of class, race and gender. But I still sometimes find the way it is treated in theatre quite frustrating and polarising. Diversity is a huge buzzword now and used as code language to describe someone who is an ethnic minority. That puts so much responsibility on the individual. It is a contradiction in terms. One person cannot be ‘diversity’. Real diversity is different; a range of experiences, cultures and classes and London at its best has that. I still think it’s crazy that you never see the range of people you’d see in your tube carriage in a theatre production.
Tell us why you thought it was important to write The Museum as part of your SOAS residency on Decolonising History?
I went to lot of lectures at SOAS and felt a bit overwhelmed after such an onslaught of information. One of my most interesting discoveries was that the process of academia is a bit colonial; British academics categorising history and artefacts from other countries. I thought about what I could do that was ‘decolonising’ in my residency and in my script. I mainly thought about artefacts and wrote a fairy story in effect, which rewrote the narrative about someone taking their own things back – a bit like Indiana Jones in reverse. It was hard to do in a 20 minute piece! Perhaps one day I’ll write a longer one. The concept of decolonisation is also about changing the stories we have inherited because stories influence the way we think – we grow up reading stories about princes rescuing princesses and at some point you have to dismantle that idea and I wanted to do that with Decolonising History.
What has been the reaction to that?
A willingness to talk about the issue from academic staff. Amongst the students I interviewed, there was anger and frustrated at the lack of action. People really wanted to talk about it. But as a massive issue, just discussing it can feel frustrating, especially when the process of studying can feel quite colonial – students are being told about their cultural history by someone European. Colonialism even features in how academic writing is graded. It was an issue students felts strongly about. That said, outside of that small pocket, lots of people in Britain’s wider population don’t know what decolonisation means. I didn’t before I started the project! Actually the act of decolonising would be a huge undertaking, with a complete overhaul in education needed, starting from a young age and in the art history narratives that would have to be retold. It’s interesting that it wasn’t part of our project to take action, we were just asked to write about decolonising history. But a lot of us decided to engage with the students, to hear from them rather than just going to lectures.
What do you understand by the term ‘decolonisation’ in relation to the arts and/or heritage?
I don’t yet fully understand the broader context of that discussion but I think there is a technical version; of a colonial force withdrawing from a colonised country, which is what I originally thought it meant. Now I realise that it is also about getting rid of cultural legacies. To me, the most interesting part art can play is challenging the legacy that colonisation has left on people’s sense of self and maybe changing that. Of course, a large scale solution on a governmental level would be instrumental to changing the talk about decolonisation into action, but I’m interested in self because I still think that through TV, film, art, theatre and music, individuals can be touched by a story. And when it is subverted it can cause you to reflect and change your mind.
I grew up with my mum always flipping the gender of characters in fairy stories. By hearing that, I understood that there was another way of seeing yourself and an alternative to the commonly told story. One of the legacies of colonialism is the view of skin colour and hair and the consideration of certain types of features as beautiful or ugly, which spans most of the world. When you present people with a different version of beauty you can invert that and make people see differently. Even if it only changes things on a small scale.
How do you think that the UK responds to the decolonisation debate?
There is a willingness to discuss it but there is a slight resistance to taking responsibility for it. ‘Colonisation’ is ignored as a wrong of the past. But we need to teach the young about that wrong instead of leaving it to them to discover outside of the education system. It is not about just apologising but saying outright that we will make amends. It’s about engaging the whole population in the decolonisation idea. Unfortunately, on the whole, people who are invited to these discussions are already interested in decolonisation rather than the wider populous who don’t know what that means.