The social importance of eating together is reiterated throughout history and resonates across cultures. Of course, here in Britain, the attention affixed to tea is a clear indication of this. Who hasn’t been offered a cuppa for everything from heartbreak to engagement?
Taking this anthropological observation and putting it in the theatre is EAT Zagi. Playing at JW3 in north London, it is a performance by Angry Bairds and the audience are very much invited to take a seat at the table.
In the show, characters Zee and Gabi are Muslim and Jewish respectively, and organise an interfaith dinner which takes a turn for the unexpected as arguments escalate, secrets are spilled and new alliances form.
Nazish Khan, co-author of the play and artistic director of Quilliam, is firmly convinced on the centrality of food to breaking down barriers, describing in an appropriately food based metaphor, as the ‘easiest ice breaker’.
Quilliam is a think-tank that focuses on countering extremism, and Khan says one of its techniques is using food to get different people talking.
“Suddenly there’s food involved, there’s entertainment involved, you get people in”, said Khan, “food is very much part of the performance because the food itself is a talking point”.
The menu is a self-described “fusion”, with vine leaves, biryani and a sweet dessert, with a deliberate emphasis on sharing platters to reiterate the “idea of sharing food with your neighbour”.
Khan is hoping having the communal meal will bring the diverse audience together as with a subject matter tackling religion, race, politics and identity, she said it’s “probably the bravest [show] we’ve done”.
While Khan is keen for the audience to be involved in the sensitive subject matter, she laughs that some people do get carried away.
“Some audience members think this is their calling card for amateur dramatics!”, she jokes.
From watching the rehearsal, interacting with the audience will be a prominent part of the show demanding improvisation from the actors. Khan said that she would like all of the audience “to feel like they’ve been tested somehow”.
And this is why the food is so important, Khan said, as “the play’s structured so it’s escalated to a really tense point, then it’s food”.
EAT Zagi is being performed at JW3, which according to its website is “the first Jewish Community Centre and arts venue of its kind to exist in London”.
Occupying a large building with a café, cinema, performance space and kids area, it was busy on a winter’s Sunday afternoon with families and young people.
Khan said as there will be a diverse audience, “the nicest part for us is actually having audience members that would never ordinarily mix with this crowd”.
Reminiscing on the show’s development night, where there was a rabbi, imam and vicar in the audience, “it looked like a comedy set up, like they’d been planted – that was the best bit!”.
But Khan is keen to stress that “one of the things that is important is the audience are not just Muslim and Jewish people, that’s the whole point of having it quite comedy and food based”.
The play is contemporary, post Brexit and post Trump, due to the participation of the audience. With the source material playing into and with current dialogue around religious and cultural issues, Khan is prepared for the audiences to come with strong opinions.
And, “you have to set barometers to absorb that”.
There’s another reason for its current nature, especially with regards to younger audiences, said Khan. Describing the current climate as a “time of suspicion and hostility” with a bias media and polarised social media, art can provide a safe space.
“I think now art, theatre, is more important than it ever has been because it fills up all the other things that are almost failing you.”
EAT Zagi is at JW3 on January 31 and February 4 and 9.
Image: Thomas Hawk