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As Mariem Omari’s uncompromising One Mississippi prepares to head out on tour, Gareth K Vile catches up with the playwright and Bijli co-founder to find out more about the production

A lthough the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival has been postponed due to coronavirus in 2020, a play that first appeared at the 2017 edition is set to tour Scotland. For Mariem Omari, co-founder of Bijli, a company dedicated to ‘diversity across cultures and art forms for Scotland and beyond’, the association with the festival’s ethos and approach is natural and comfortable.

‘SMHAF has been a safe and creative place for me as an artist,’ she says. ‘Its artistic director, Andrew Eaton Lewis, is open to new artists and ways of exploring mental health through theatre. So, when I came to him as a virtually unknown playwright with One Mississippi, and explained that I wanted to place diversity centre stage when it comes to men’s mental health, and to reinforce that it doesn’t matter what ethnicity, age or religion you are, this issue affects us all, he welcomed me with open arms.’

One Mississippi embodies the ethos of Bijli’s vision. Using physical theatre to expand verbatim interviews with a selection of men, including a Scottish Pakistani Muslim, an Indian Sikh, a Northern Irishman living in Glasgow, and a recovering addict from east Glasgow, it examines the breadth of contemporary Scottish identity and the commonalities within individuals’ experiences.

Omari continues: ‘Every person you meet has a story it’s fascinating. I used to say to my mum when I was little, “I want to go to as many places as I can, and meet as many people as I can”. There are so many stories out there, and they interest me far more than anything I could make up in my head.’ This became a foundation of her approach to making One Mississippi. ‘It was almost instinctive to take a verbatim approach. And I was also conscious of the fact that I’m a woman writing about men and their mental health: using verbatim text created an authenticity that the play might not otherwise have had.’ The inspiration for the specific discussion of male mental health, and the importance of understanding the concept of how the child can be father to the man, came from Omari’s previous work on the successful If I Had A Girl . . . ‘While interviewing men who had been to prison for domestic abuse for that play, I was surprised at the similar childhood trauma these men had experienced, and how profoundly it had impacted on their mental health,’ Omari reflects. ‘This didn’t excuse what they had done, but it did explain some of the choices they made, like getting hooked on drugs or alcohol, which exacerbated their behaviour.’

Although Omari determined to interview a cross-section of men, the project did take on a personal element: ‘I also found myself reflecting on the personal experiences I had had with my own family, in particular my father, and this drove me to want to understand more about the impact of childhood experiences, and how that shapes who we are as adults . . . for better or worse.’

Omari’s work has always used performance as a basis for developing a sense of community and conversation, as well as presenting work that examines difficult ideas in a creative way. One Mississippi has elements of humour and storytelling, and Omari aims to entertain as well as educate. ‘I find static, straight narrative delivery of verbatim boring: I didn’t want to create that, I wanted to energise the stories, in the way the stories were told to me. There was so much in the text that reminded me of boys playing in the playground, or men and how they relate to each other at the gym, and I wanted to capture that with really dynamic physicality on stage.’

One Mississippi’s Scottish tour has been postponed due to COVID-19. See bijliproductions.com for updates.

34 THE LIST 1 Apr–31 May 2020