“Laughter in these circumstances is a necessary and important release.” | Sajeela Kershi talks strength in the face of adversity for Fights Like A Girl

Tell us about your show Sajeela Kershi: Fights Like A Girl.

FLAG is about the things I have fought for and fought against, my personal battles against the challenging geopolitical backdrop. It’s very much an inter-sectional and inter-active political rally if you like, all wrapped up in stand-up show.

It’s from the viewpoint of a British South Asian female immigrant. It definitely takes the audience on a journey asking them what they will fight for. To own their own accountability for the state of the world they inhabit. It’s pretty kick ass, fierce, funny and in your face but with some tender moments.

The show was first conceived at the Women’s March in London. How has it evolved since then?

Yes, since writing it in 2017 just after the Anti Trump March the show has developed and changed depending on where and when I’ve performed it.

The horror of the Christchurch terrorist attack happened whilst I was mid tour in NZ with the show. It was shocking as it happened in one of the safest countries you could travel in. I was due to perform in Christchurch 2 days after the attack. It completely shook the people of NZ and it affected me in a very deep and profound way.

The day it happened, I was in at the Wellington Fringe. It dawned on me that I was a million miles from home and at this point we had very little information on who was actually responsible and how many were involved. I had this sickening feeling that anyone who hated Muslims that much could just as easily walk into my show and do the same to me. I mean, this Muslim woman was advertised all over town – I felt incredibly vulnerable.

The promoters and festival were amazing and offered to let me pull the show – but that would mean the terrorist would have won and it went against everything my show and I stood for. So legs like jelly, my mouth dry and dread in my heart, I went on stage the night of the attack. I delivered my opening line (albeit a littler shakier than usual). Lights blinding me, I could see the silhouette of a room full of people.

A woman at the front stood up and said, “Excuse me, can I just give you a hug.” She gave me the biggest hug with others kind of following, making sympathetic sighs. She whispered, “This is not us, this is not who we are.”

That almost became the mantra around the attack. That small act of kindness gave me the strength to carry on and reclaim my stage. The laughter came hard and freely! It was a liberating cathartic experience for both audience and I. Towards the end of the show, I incorporated our collective response to the attack in a rant, it got applause and a standing ovation. I kept it for the rest of the NZ run.

At the end of my shows I always give out stickers to the audience as they leave. This time I asked them to take a sticker and donate money that we could send to the victims families. The generosity of those people! That led to a snowball effect of more impromptu fundraisers. Word got round and people agreed to host FLAG in their homes to collect funds.

I went to Christchurch, visited the site of the shooting and met and spoke with victims families. Everyone who came to these official and pop up shows was so generous and we helped raised substantial amount towards the cause. 

The show was very special and healing in NZ. Complete strangers came together to laugh in the face of extremism and show haters won’t divide us. Which has from the start been at the heart of Fights Like a Girl.

What kind of reactions have you had to the show so far?

Mind blowing reaction on NZ outing. Due to word of mouth, the show became the antidote to the fallout from the attack.

To be honest, I’m blown away every time someone says nice things about the show. Audiences have reported feeling inspired and empowered and off course you know find it funny! I’m very lucky as have had really lovely audience and critical feedback.

Even had the lovely Mayor of London Sadiq Khan and his wife came to see the show in Edinburgh and he very kindly recommended it on social media.

This show tackles serious social topics head on. What made you decide to approach these through comedy?

There’s only one thing more rewarding than making people laugh and that’s making people laugh and think. What is the point of me having this platform if I don’t use it for a purpose, I don’t want to waste that opportunity to make a small difference. And I guess I always want my work to have a message or meaning of some sort.

You explore these themes through personal stories about fighting for the things you believe in. Was it difficult making any of these funny?

Well I’m always fascinated by crossing the boundaries the line between pain/pleasure or Love/Hate or Laughter/Tragedy. Even the darkest experiences can bring moments of hilarity. There’s a story in the show of me getting held hostage by extremists in Pakistan.

I mean it is SO dark – a bunch of women in my family were held at gunpoint with the threat of violence, death and rape over us – they did use violence. However, there were hilarious moments at the time and I know as you read this you won’t believe me.

Don’t worry, in the show the story has been subverted and leads to a very satisfying conclusion for all concerned! The audience love how it’s resolved! Laughter in these circumstances is a necessary and important release.

Has writing and performing this show taught you anything about other people’s approach to the political climate?

Globally, we have had appalling leaders making disastrous decisions for us. It’s easy to believe this is our new reality, i.e., creating unnecessary conflicts, stopping freedom of movement, allowing misogyny, racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, migrant hatred and complete disregard for common decency and justice to prevail.

But look at how the NZ Prime Minister reacted. Very next day she’s dealing with gun crime head on, she’s comforting the victims. She refused to name the terrorist, naming victims instead. As a friend pointed out, she took all that was good of the country, kindness, compassion, generosity, hospitality and reflected it back to the people.

Whereas our leaders reflect their poison, mistrust , hatred, blame, division and that’s why we as a country are in a state of emotional and intellectual crisis! Brexit debacle is eating away at the core of goodness in people! We need to see it for the self serving divide-and-rule strategy it is!

What do you hope people take away from your show?

That in spite of all the crazy in the world there is hope and we/they are that hope!

Are there any other shows you’re looking forward to at the Funny Things Comedy Festival?

Susan Murray is sublime – Simon Brodkin aka as Lee Nelson as himself is amazing! John Kearns is always genius!

Do you have any advice for anyone looking to break into comedy?

Don’t get into it to be famous! The industry is full of wanktard wannabes. Much to the detriment of the circuit. Do a comedy course, a good one run by someone who knows – I suggest Logan Murray!

Write everyday, perform regularly, don’t get bitter get better and hone in your craft. There is no end to that – we are all always learning!

And be nice to everyone.

Sajeela is performing Fights Like A Girl on 31st October.

Book your ticket here.

Find out more about the Funny Things Comedy Festival here.

You can keep with Sajeela’s other projects by following her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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