Interview: Hannah Kumari, 'BLM made me start thinking about the connection between football and national identity in this country'

Hannah Kumari is getting set to tour her play ENG-ER-LAND when we speak to her. Written by, and starring, Kumari, ENG-ER-LAND depicts one woman’s passion for football and the obstacles, racism and sexism she has experienced on the stands. Directed by Rikki Beadle-Blair MBE, the play, which sold out last year at the Jermyn Street Theatre in London as a work in progress, is touring 15 venues across the country from 16 February to 2 April 2022.

We spoke with Kumari about the inspiration for the play, translating her experiences to the stage and 90s football references.

Hannah Kumari. Photo: Ali Wright

The Understudy Q&A with Hannah Kumari

Hi Hannah, thanks for taking time out from preparations for ENG-ER-LAND to talk to us about the play. How have rehearsals been so far?

My pleasure! Rehearsals have been great. I love working with Rikki and we have a lot of fun in the room, as well as working hard obviously! Rikki really understands the themes of the play and what I’m trying to say. He has been a huge part of the process in helping me tell this story. 

What was the inspiration for ENG-ER-LAND?

I’ve always loved football and, like a lot of people my age, am quite nostalgic for the 90s, so I think I always had this play inside me. What prompted me to actually start writing it were the counter-demonstrations which happened in the wake of the BLM protests in London in June 2020. There was a particular group involved who link themselves to football and it made me start thinking about the connection between football and national identity in this country, as well as different things I have experienced and witnessed at football over the years, since attending my first match in 1996. 

It’s obviously a very personal play that details your passion for football and the racism and sexism you’ve experienced on the stands. Was it difficult writing about those experiences?

It’s always a challenge to translate personal experience for the stage, and important to do that safely. Some things which I’ve experienced, I have framed differently in the play to protect myself, and other parts are dramatised to serve the story better. It is not an entirely autobiographical piece but it is inspired by my lived experiences. 

Hannah Kumari. Photo: Ali Wright

How do you think audiences will react to the themes of the play and to your experiences?

The reaction I’ve had to the piece so far from audiences has been overwhelmingly positive. We did a 4 night run at Jermyn Street in June 2021, all of which sold out, and I’ve done two other performances since then. All of those formed part of our development period and the piece has changed quite a bit since then. Lots of people have told me they have had similar experiences and others have said it’s made them see things in a different way. Some people seem to really enjoy the obscure 90s football references!

How has it been working with director Rikki Beadle-Blair?

Working with Rikki is a total joy. I am continually inspired by his talent, energy and generosity in supporting other artists. We get on brilliantly so it’s a relaxed but hard working atmosphere. Rikki also directed the run at Jermyn Street and had a big impact on the final staging of the piece, I’m so lucky to have him on board. 

You’re touring the play to over fifteen venues - is it daunting taking on such a huge commitment like that? 

Honestly it doesn’t seem daunting, just exciting! I feel really lucky to be able to take a show which I have written and love performing to so many different places and communities. Hopefully it will resonate and start some important conversations. 

Hannah Kumari. Photo: Ali Wright
Finally, how would you describe ENG-ER-LAND to someone considering buying a ticket for the show?

 ENG-ER-LAND is a fun, energetic and uplifting solo-show staged in a unique way. It’s a shared experience which confronts big issues through the lens of a mixed-race teenage girl in the 90s, trying to find her place in the world, and in the stands. It gives a perspective on the beautiful game which has not been seen previously in theatre, plus there’s a dance routine to Gina G, what’s not to love about that! The feedback I’ve had so far is that there are themes in the show that everyone can relate to, so don’t be put off if you don’t like football! 

For more information about the ENG-ER-LAND tour visit: https://www.wolab.co.uk/eng-er-land



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