Two billion beats is a coming-of-age story about two sisters, Asha and Bettina, who get together every day after school and chat, celebrate, argue, and mourn their lives. They are at different stages of life despite the two-year age gap, which offers a leap in values and ideas about the world.
Asha is an A level student and what is awesome [playwright] Sonali Bhattacharyya’s writing in this piece is that she uses the idea of school and the visible and invisible rules that support the education system as the backdrop that Asha has to struggle with. The heroes she excites are academic like her, but they are activists – rallying against the norm and helping to give voice and space to those who are often unknown. Bettina is the younger sister and much happier to go with the crowd, which creates tension between them.
When I’m designing a show, I pull out any themes that I think exist in the writing, and then I discuss them with the director so that we can work out how we feel about that particular story. Director Nimmo Ismail and I had many conversations about what it was like to be a teenager, sisterhood, fatherhood at a young age, the education system, gender and race.
Both sisters are South Asian, and while I’m not, as a black woman designing the show, that means I can relate to some of the ideas about the pressure to do well in school, this inherited immigrant restlessness and the cultural gap between first and second generations – themes that play a complex role in the decisions these women make throughout the play.
There’s a lot to writing, but what became clear pretty quickly is that being a teenager in the West is often a time when you find ways to establish your own voice distinct from those of your family. , and the nuances that emerge in first or second generation; you develop a sense of independence and you test the limits. There’s a feeling of being in your own unique world, and I tried to reinforce a sense of confinement in the design.
Much of the play asks questions about who we will be, and how we want to lead and create our lives, and the consequences of those decisions. While these questions probably always crop up at this stage of life, I think it might resonate more with young people today who seem to be more politically engaged due to the difficult climate in which we live.
Most of our plays take place outdoors. It’s a world of gray and blue concrete. There’s a rhythm and monotony to the day that design only really supports through our costume choices that speak to their individual personalities.
You see a lot of teenagers hanging in groups together outdoors in real life. This has become very visible to me during the pandemic where young people are finding ways to be together. I remember walking along an underpass in South London one evening and finding groups of teenagers having a good time sitting on the walls and steps, listening to music and chatting between them. It was kind of a playground for them, and so Nimmo and I tried to treat the space as such.
During the design process, Nimmo said something that stuck with me: teenagers rarely have economic power at this stage of their lives, but they do have their voices, so we knew the design had to take that into account. This led us to create levels in the space to allow actors to physically supplement their amplification capability when needed.
The set is really minimal in response to the rich text and hopefully means it can hold a lot of ideas raised throughout the piece. Designing in the round is always a challenge, but I hope the staging will allow audiences to observe all the nuances these young women display at this particular time in their lives and serve to reinforce their and our unique position.
Two Billion Beats is at the Orange Tree Theater from February 5 to March 5
Photo credit: Alex Brenner