One of our newest writers, 16 year old Shamsa Kiwanuka writes about how Drama GCSE taught her that young black people face more mental health struggles and that it’s OK to ask for help.

My dad was the final relative I hadn’t yet begged to accompany me to the theatre, but once I did, I was shocked to find out he likes musicals. My Ugandan, Muslim traditional father finds a pastime historically aimed at wealthy, white families somewhat enjoyable. Despite this, he still refused to go, telling me: “Shamsa, those things are not our class”.

Growing up, we never went to the theatre and to be honest, I don’t think I even knew it existed. We found more affordable enjoyment like the park across the road, swimming on a Saturday afternoon, the cinema, family parties and the occasional day outin London. It wasn’t until I chose GCSE Drama in 2018 that I became engaged with theatre and I caught a glimpse of the West End.

Theatre is bloody expensive.

I do not understand why some tickets cost hundreds of pounds and they’re for a show you might not even enjoy. Student-budget friendly theatre is out there, it’s just hidden underneath the stigma – and truth to some extent – that theatre is for wealthy, white families. To be successful in the creative arts, it helps to have finances sorted. Drama schools, extra tuition expenses and just living in London are going to be a real struggle if the necessary funds aren’t there.

I talk a lot, so Drama seemed like the best GCSE option. I am indecisive and analytical, so I have always performed better in essay-based subjects. There aren’t many discussions in Maths or Science. What is there to discuss? Some old (probably deceased) guy found a formula and you just have to use it. In Drama, we develop the stories of people we have probably never met and explore the work of theatre companies such as Frantic Assembly. I spent Year 9 exploring physicality and movement to show character relationships or inner battles, developing routines with pace, facial expressions and learning about the difference eye contact can make. Drama challenges you as an individual and particularly your patience and creativity.

Theatre unites all kinds of people.

As my Drama course progressed, we started to realise how time-consuming and mentally draining it was. I was put in a group of four black girls and we suggested racism. It’s a safe option. Throw in a cup of slavery, a spoon of institutionalised discrimination and a hint of microaggressions and boom, you have a grade 9 (A**) piece. Although this route is powerful, current, and sadly still significant in our society 400 years later (cough, cough), it has been done repeatedly in previous years’ performances.  It was an easy A, but we wanted to be challenged.

Eventually, we landed on mental health in ethnic minorities. Perfect for us. Not really discussed, but an issue we could relate to and devise a twenty-minute piece on that was inspired by our own experiences. Mental Health has finally become a widely spoken, open conversation with more access to support and advice for young people. Despite this though, not as many black or Asian teenagers are speaking up and after doing some research via this panel discussion and Guardian article, I understand why.

“Strong, black men do not suffer.’ ‘How can aggressive, loud black women possibly struggle with any sort of mental health issues?’ ‘They can handle it. They’re tough.”

Our group circled ideas around about why growing up in a traditional household meant it was taboo to say you’re feeling a bit depressed. Not to use the term loosely, but even just mentioning that maybe you’re struggling a bit is not particularly encouraged.

Following extensive research, we found that black men and women are less likely to seek advice. Black people are 20% more likely to suffer from depression than the general population due to socio-economic factors and racism. African Americans are the most religious demographic in the United States according to a recent Gallup survey. Some said, “all we have to do is pray about it. Give it to God. He will sort it out.” Our parents would have all turned to religion if their child expressed mental struggles. Fair enough. As a believer of God, why wouldn’t I turn to my creator for guidance?

The pressures to secure a place at a top university, in a country that avoids a second look at your application because your surname is just too strenuous to pronounce,is a lot. The expectations set on us to become a doctor, engineer or lawyer can be suffocating. We know we are loved by our parents; they want us to do welland give us all the opportunities that they were not given. They were surrounded by a ‘life is hard, you have to get on with it’ sort of attitude. This does not, however justify the lack of awareness of ethnic minorities’ mental health.

I did not think about how open and vulnerable we had to be performing our piece. After speaking with friends who could relate and reading peoples’ blogs who were too afraid to be seen as weak, I felt confidence in the necessity and relevance of our piece. Brechtian theatre aims to educate an audience; Bertolt was against spectators becoming emotionally involved in a performance as he believed it prohibited judgement. Breaking the fourth wall, placards with statistics and comedy are all aspects of Brecht to bring awareness to an issue. Performing in this style was painfully demanding, to be funny and engaging, simultaneously conveying our message with the urgency for change. Theatre can do that, Pythagoras’ Theorem can’t.

Theatre is education.

Our piece could have been other forms of art. Spoken word has the power to crumble your prior beliefs. Songs are memorable and convenient escapes. But songs can be short and played in the background, to fill the room and mute the silence. A performance is not just voice, it’s visually persuasive to whoever chooses to attend. You don’t somehow end up in a theatre, like you are forced to listen to music in coffee shops or weddings.

Theatre requires time. Time to connect with strangers who have dedicated their time to watch you. When I see a performance, I don’t expect to feel anything. The actors don’t owe me emotions. If I feel uncomfortable, it is for a reason and I need to find out why.

Theatre is commitment. Giving a couple of hours of your time to learn and to explore. GCSE Drama freed our stories. Stories we did not know we had inside us.