Sonali Bhattacharyya’s new play, Two Billion Beats, has its world premiere run February 5 – March 5, 2022 at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, England. Directed by Nimmo Ismail, the production is about 17-year-old Asha (Safiyya Ingar) and her younger sister, Bettina (Anoushka Chadha), as they maneuver the challenges of getting through the school day. Asha is fearless about identifying hypocrisy around her, but she’s not quite sure what to do about these injustices in the world. The play highlights the experience of young South Asians growing up in Britain.
Ingar’s theatre credits include The Child in the Snow and The Box of Delights (Wilton’s Music Hall), Marvin’s Binoculars and The Canterville Ghost (The Unicorn Theatre), Jabala and The Jinn (AIK Productions/Turtle Key Arts), September Skies (Small Truth Theatre), and many more. As we traded pleasantries on a Zoom call, Ingar shared that they’ve enjoyed reading books and taking up taekwondo recently. We also discussed Two Billion Beats and some of the themes that award-winning playwright Bhattacharyya explores about today’s society. Here are the highlights of our conversation.
I understand you have a home studio. How did that come about?
I was in the middle of a mentorship with this incredible voice actress called Alix Wilton Regan, who was championing diverse talent and women of color. She took me on and four other women to mentor. Using the money from a few voice gigs, I invested in better equipment and acoustic blankets. I designed a skeleton made of PVC piping to create a home studio for myself.
What’s special about Asha and Bettina’s relationship?
I have the same political stances as Asha. She strikes a balance between caring for her circle around her and then the bigger picture, which a lot of the time affects your ability to take care of yourself. With my activism [and] the way I interact with my family, I have ideals about things that I know are right and I carry in my heart. That’s my strength, but then the small things start coming in and I sort of forget the bigger picture with my own siblings.
I related so heavily to [Asha]. Also, I like the fact that it’s just two South Asian women in the play not talking about men. They’re normal, imperfect, smart, and funny. They are not exoticized. They are existing with each other in the most organic relationship I’ve read. It’s so lovely.
Tell us about rehearsals.
It doesn’t even feel like work at all. We come in and have fun. We feel safe in this environment together as we talk about the deep things, listen, and understand. We validate and communicate while we bounce ideas off one another. We do TikTok dances! This is something special. I’d feel like I’d be missing out if I didn’t do [the play].[Bhattacharyya’s script] is honest and to the point. It’s very much a rhythm that I find most natural. She writes in these big chunks of thoughts. There is so much room for actors to explore what’s going on and play with. It isn’t just information. … The writing and the journey are so clear. I’m so excited for people to hear it.
What does Two Billion Beats explore about education?
Who do we hail as heroes and why? What did they actually do to deserve these titles and adoration? It’s frustrating that there are these different sides we are just now learning about. Gandhi may have been the epitome of peace for some people, but to a whole other group of people, he was an absolute enemy who didn’t see or value them as human beings. We also talk about the problematic sides of the Suffragettes, who pushed for votes for women. No one really talks about the racism, pushing for war efforts, and how they didn’t see people as equal; they had their gender and that’s it.
Talking about the education system, Asha confronts a teacher about these specific topics. People don’t like being proved wrong. The gatekeepers refuse to acknowledge the nuance and difference sides. They can absolutely teach [it] but they don’t.
One of the biggest things for me is decolonizing our minds step-by-step, because everything is taught through the lens of colonialism. Whether people like it or not, race and gender touch pretty much everything in our world. People don’t want to say the right thing because either they can’t, they’re scared, or they’re exhausted. Naturally, kids are going to grow up a bit jaded to all of this stuff.
What are good ways to be involved with activism and helping others as heroes?
One of the biggest things I learned is about compassion, acceptance, and understanding. Know that you can’t win every fight but if you haven’t got any fight in you, what’s the point? My problem is I want to fight every battle, sometimes to [my] detriment. I had to learn to gauge it and control it, putting my energy where it’s needed. …
If I see someone in the Tube getting unjustly harassed—or someone makes someone feel a certain way—I know I can walk over, sit next to that person and make sure they’re okay. If push comes to shove, I’ll get myself involved. Just be involved, listen, and want to help.
Be present and know that can be a good thing for you. Acknowledge pronouns. Make sure someone is allowed to speak. So much of the world is about putting up all these walls and criticizing things. It doesn’t have to be depressing doom scrolling where you tweet everyday how angry you are at the world.
There’s so many different ways to be a hero. Wearing a cape, flying around, and stopping buildings from falling down is one way. In another way, I like knowing I’m that person in a room who says, “I see you. I hear you. Is there anything I can do to help? If not, I’m here.”
For more information about ‘Two Billion Beats’, visit Orange Tree Theatre’s website.