Hannah Kumari explores belonging and bigotry in the beautiful game.
The performer, writer and producer is taking her solo show on a national tour this Spring.
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Performer, writer and producer Hannah Kumari first went to a live football game as a teenager in February 1996.
It was the fourth round of the FA Cup: Coventry City, her local team, versus Manchester City at Highfield Road. It finished 2-2. Coventry lost the replay the following week and were knocked out, but Kumari was hooked.
“I asked for a season ticket for Christmas and started going to every home game with my uncle,” says Kumari. “I loved it. I still do. There’s a lot I don’t like about the top level of football and how corporate it is now, but it still has the power to bring people together and it is still beautiful to watch. Someone once called it the poor man’s ballet, and I love that.”
Kumari’s fondness for live football has followed her ever since. Born in 1983 and raised - ironically enough - in Rugby, with a Scottish dad and an Indian mother, she knew she wanted to perform from a young age, joining youth theatre groups, appearing in school plays, and eventually training as an actor at Bretton Hall in the early 2000s.
She went to Valencia games when she lived in Spain for several years. She went to West Ham games when she moved back to London. Now she lives in Somerset, she goes to Frome Town games. And, of course, she still watches Coventry City when she gets the chance. “We got relegated to League Two, but we have since been promoted back to the Championship,” she says. “We’re on the way up.”
For over a decade after she graduated from Bretton Hall, Kumari only acted, appearing in various theatre roles, as well as Channel 4’s Skins, BBC One’s Doctors, and, when she lived in Spain, a Spanish feature film. It was not until 2020 that she started producing and performing her own work. There were, she says, several factors behind the decision.
“I’ve battled mental health issues and drug and alcohol addiction throughout my life,” she says. “I got clean and sober in 2017 and started feeling like a different person. Coupled with that was the fact that, particularly in TV, I was always getting cast as a certain type of Asian girl, when I actually had quite a White upbringing myself.”
“I didn’t feel like my experience of being Brown in a predominantly White town was being represented on stage anywhere,” she continues. “I just felt like it was time I started telling my own stories.”
“There is nothing like walking towards a ground on a sunny day before a match with everyone else…”
It was the Covid-19 pandemic that provided Kumari with the time and space to start writing. The topic she wanted to tackle first was immediately obvious: football.
Her first one-woman play, ENG-ER-LAND, premiered at the Jermyn Street Theatre’s Footprints Festival in June 2021, in a production directed by Rikki Beadle-Blair and produced by Alistair Wilkinson and WoLab. Nostalgically set in the summer of 1997, it follows a young girl, Lizzie, as she falls in love with football.
It is heavily inspired by Kumari’s own experiences in the terraces as a teenager, and wrestles with themes of belonging and bigotry in the beautiful game – issues suddenly sharpened, says Kumari, by the sight of Premier League players taking the knee in support of Black Lives Matter, by the scenes surrounding last summer’s Euro 2020 final at Wembley, and by the subsequent abuse received by players Marcus Rashford, Jayden Sancho and Bukayo Saka when football did not, in fact, come home.
“I have had some negative experiences at football matches, which have put me off going,” says Kumari. “There are particular clubs and particular grounds that I would not go to because of the way some of their fans behave, but mostly my experiences with football have been overwhelmingly positive. There is nothing like walking towards a ground on a sunny day before a match with everyone else, feeling that energy.”
ENG-ER-LAND is now about to embark on a national tour, supported by the Football Supporters’ Association, starting at Warwick Arts Centre in February and visiting a range of studio theatres, community venues, and other spaces, including Manchester’s National Football Museum. Kumari will be running workshops and Q&A sessions along the way – and that is all part of the project’s point, she says.
“I want to connect with audiences that might not normally go to the theatre, and spark a conversation,” Kumari explains. “The piece isn’t preachy at all. It’s fun, and celebratory, and energetic, and accessible – but I do want it to encourage empathy at the same time.”
It is not the only project based on her own experiences Kumari is currently working on. She is also developing another solo show, Spinning Wheel, about her experiences with Alcoholics Anonymous, which she previewed at The Wardrobe Ensemble’s Theatre On The Downs in September, and her first screenplay, which will be broadcast on Sky Arts later this year.
“I am one of ten artists commissioned to make a short film by Sky Arts, Coventry City of Culture, Arts Council England, The Space Arts and Shoot Festival,” Kumari explains. “Mine is called Devi, and it is a woman of mixed heritage, struggling with addiction, not connecting with one half of their identity. There’s a spirituality about it, too.”
“We will be shooting it in February, right before the ENG-ER-LAND tour,” she adds. “Things are going to be quite busy over the next few months.”
What do you want to do?
I want to keep making my own work, keep collaborating with different artists, and keep working with non-theatrical organisations like the Football Supporters’ Association to connect with different audiences, too.
Two artists I really admire are Bryony Kimmings and Selina Thompson. They have their own companies, collaborating with different artists and organisations, making interdisciplinary work for both stage and screen. That’s the direction I would like to head in.
What support do you need to get there?
I would love to work with a full-time producer in the future. I also respond really well to mentoring, so if anyone is able to give me some advice on starting your own company as an independent artist, and how you go about building connections, that would be really helpful.
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