Feature: Glasgow Girls preview

The magnificent seven

Cora Bissett’s new show celebrates a positive story of Glasgow multiculturalism, writes Mark Brown

Meeting multi-talented theatre director, dramatist, actor and musician Cora Bissett is a slightly strange experience for us both. We are getting together to discuss her latest piece, Glasgow Girls, a play with songs inspired by a real-life asylum rights campaign.

While we have, for well over a decade, shared the sometimes uncomfortable professional relationship which exists between theatre-maker and critic, we have something else in common. Since the “forced dispersal” of asylum seekers to Scotland began at the turn of the millennium, we have both been engaged in the campaign for asylum rights: she as an activist and, more recently, dramatist; me as secretary of the Glasgow Campaign to Welcome Refugees, between 2001 and 2006.

Since 2000, when busloads of asylum seekers came from the south-east of England to some of Glasgow’s most impoverished communities, there have been some terrible stories, from the murder of Turkish-Kurdish asylum seeker Firsat Yildiz Dag in Sighthill in 2001 to the hunger strike of three Iranian refugees fighting deportation in 2004.

However, as Bissett points out, the story of asylum seekers in Glasgow is primarily a positive one of integration and achievement. “When the first asylum seekers were forcibly dispersed to Glasgow in 2000, it could have been a disaster,” she notes. “They just shoved these people into flats in Sighthill, for example, with no proper preparation within the community. Asylum seekers were being dumped in impoverished areas, and the local population was given no explanation as to why they were there.”

However, the director observes, while anti-asylum seeker sentiments and racist incidents have dominated headlines, the most important story of Glasgow’s asylum seekers is one of solidarity between them, the new Scots, and people in the communities they now call home. Nowhere is that clearer than in the case of the “Glasgow Girls”, seven schoolgirls aged 15 and 16, from Drumchapel, who in 2005 campaigned successfully against the deportation of a Kosovo Roma family.

Four of the girls (Agnesa Murselaj, Amal Azzudin, Roza Salih, Ewelina Siwak) were from refugee families; three (Emma Clifford, Toni Henderson and Jennifer McCarron) were Scots-born. Their campaign, which won them Best Public Campaign at the Politician of the Year Awards in 2005, began when Agnesa and her family were seized by immigration officers in a dawn raid. Outraged at their friend being stolen from them, the other six began a campaign that would inspire people well beyond their school and community.

Bissett worked closely with the Scottish Refugee Council (SRC) on her powerful, award-winning play Roadkill, a drama about the trafficking of young girls into prostitution. She has teamed up with the SRC again in making Glasgow Girls. “It’s a rites-of-passage story about teenagers,” she says of the play, conceived and directed by her with a book by playwright David Greig. “It’s also a story about multiculturalism. These girls don’t care about religion, colour or creed, their attitude is: ‘They’re my mates, end of story.'”

Not only does the play take a bold stand in favour of multiculturalism, it also provides, in Bissett’s opinion, a much-needed portrayal of young women whose self-image is not dominated by the forces of mass marketing. “There’s just something really refreshing about the story of a bunch of girls who are not obsessed with fame and celebrity. Actually, here are seven girls who are looking outwards into their society. They want to learn how they can make a change.”

When, after the success of Roadkill (which saw the SRC inundated with public support), the Refugee Council asked Bissett to make another piece about asylum and migrant rights, she had no hesitation in suggesting the Glasgow Girls’ story. “It was something I’d remembered very distinctly,” she says. “For many of them it set them off on a life journey. One of them has gone into training as a human rights lawyer. One’s in journalism, one’s in community development.”

The decision to turn the story into a musical came, the director explains, from the nature of the Glasgow Girls’ campaign. “I wanted to put songs in it because the girls were so young at the time that they were learning a political language as they went along. Their political education was almost instant, it was visceral. Songs are a way to get to that experience much more quickly. The girls were acting on impulse, and songs can reflect that.”

The music and lyrics for the show have been created by Bissett herself, working alongside Patricia Panther, John Kielty and Sumati Bhardwaj (aka MC Soom T, also a member of Scottish supergroup The Burns Unit alongside King Creosote and Karine Polwart). Bissett couldn’t be more excited about having Soom T on the team. “She’s Indian-Scots, a wee Maryhill lassie, with an accent broad as broad can be,” the director enthuses. “She’s a big political figure. She runs her own label, called Renegade Masters. She’s always going back and forth all over Europe doing gigs. She’s just amazing!”

A combination of an inspiring example of human solidarity with the talents of the likes of Bissett, Greig and Soom T, Glasgow Girls promises to be a memorable theatrical contribution to Scotland’s developing asylum story.

Glasgow Girls is at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow from October 31 to November 17. www.nationaltheatrescotland.com

This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on October 28, 2012

© Mark Brown

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