Written by Peter Mortimer
Directed by Darren Palmer
Cloud Nine Theatre Productions
This fascinating, inspiring and well-produced work succeeded on just
about every level, and was a surely a highlight this year's Arabic Arts
Festival. Telling the story of the 1930 Mill Dam riot in South Shields,
it mixes humour with invention and political insight to devastating effect.
At the time, the fighting was described as a 'race riot', between Yemeni
migrant workers and white merchant seamen. However, as Riot shows, this
is a simplification. Confrontation can never be caused by mere ethnic
differences, though they are often disastrously used as a point of identification
by people struggling over scarce resources.
Riot follows the South Shields life of new migrant Yussuf (Amir Boutrous),
as he bids to earn a living in a strange new land. He is given shelter
by a Muslim boarding house keeper (Neji Nejah), who bends the rules to
find Yussuf employment as a ship fireman. Abused by his white co-workers,
Yussuf soon discovers a talent for boxing, winning the love of local girl
Thelma (Janine Leigh-Allen) and the admiration of a Communist Party member
organising the Yemeni workers.
But the Great Depression unfolds, and conditions begin to worsen for
the working people of South Shields. The Seamen's union leader (Paul Court)
is firmly in the pocket of the Shipping Federation boss (Jim Kitson),
so the struggle for employment tragically breaks out in a racist form,
with white workers attacking the class conscious Arab immigrants.
All this sounds very dour as I type it, but thanks to the imaginative
writing of Peter Mortimer and the lively direction of Darren Palmer, it
is anything but. With another massive economic crisis looming, and union
bosses seeking to divert class struggle along nationalist lines far more
than they did in 1930, there are important lessons to be learned about
who the real enemies are.