RACE

Who Cries Wins // Martin O'Brien & Guests

This discussion of autobiographical performance and trauma explored a notional increase in artists making work engaging with these themes. Are there really more artists using personal stories as the basis for their work? Or is it simply that the particular qualities of this labour are now acknowledged more readily? That testimonies of trauma (particularly by artists of colour, disabled artists and those with lived experience of mental health issues) are now recognised as far more than mere self-indulgence? The artists Martin O’Brien, Mele Broomes and Amelia Stubberfield made up a panel presenting three very different but interrelated perspectives on these questions, refracting the central theme of the festival (Care & Destruction) back through their personal narratives and artistic practices.  

O’Brien is an artist whose exploration of his own status as someone with cystic fibrosis has pushed his body to the limits of endurance. Through his strategic deployment of SM techniques, medical ritual and pop-cultural mythologies (most recently the figure of the zombie, after passing his life expectancy of 30) his work challenges audience to witness the process of the body and the experience of sickness. This is very different to Broomes, whose work Grin was performed in excerpt at Care & Destruction. Broomes discussed her experience as a dancer of colour, someone whose very body troubles the overwhelmingly white spaces of institutional culture, and the pressure that goes with it. How even well-meaning attempts to engage with artists of colour can still leave the onus on them to both explain their experience and offer solutions for how it could be resolved. Stubberfield, whose piece Borderline was also part of the festival weekend, offered a very different perspective. Presenting a more narrative practice, an investement in stand-up as a form, which centres the notion of story more than either O’Brien or Broomes, they discussed how comedy might provide a vehicle for serious and honest discussion. 

Although very different practices, each artist arrived by their own route to a series of similar and related questions. Who is in the audience and does autobiography serve them? The presentation of personal testimony can be a powerful catharsis. Who gets to make the decisions around the work? How is performance dealing with the intensely personal presented, marketed, made public, and where? Each artist claimed their practice as a way to take responsibility for the work they wanted to make – the assertion of something important to each of them. And in that, perhaps, there is much for the audience, venues and cultural institutions to consider.  

-      Lewis Church


Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Martin O’Brien - BBC Ouch Podcast

About V/DA - Mele Broomes

Amelia Stubberfield

Autobiography and Performance - Deirdre Heddon

Lyn Gardner: Theatre is embracing diversity, but it’s still not enough. - The Stage

Mental Health in the arts: Are we talking about it enough? - London Evening Standard

#UKDrillProject // HighRise Theatre

PARTY IN DA HOUSE

When a performance starts with a rave, you might think of it as being quite bizarre. People were being asked for their ID upon entering, which gave off the impression that you were about to enter a night club. When you did you found a VIP section and a drinks bar at the ready. DRILL music was being blasted out of the stereos. DRILL music videos were being played on the wall, which you could put headphones on and listen to. This immersive part of the performance gave the audience a chance to get to know one another and break the ice. Whilst you were in this room you become more aware of your surroundings. It was a chance to appreciate the images and displays that were shown on the walls. One in particular was quite intriguing - not a picture per-se but a type of fact file which explained in bold letters how two DRILL rappers had been sentenced to nine months in prison because they were performing their music to a live audience.  

NIGHT’S NOT OVER YET 

As the partying part of the performance came to an end we were then led into the auditorium. Here the performers addressed the stereotyping and racial discrimination of people who listen to DRILL, and how DRILL is deemed to be a main source of street crime. Where people are inexplicably being arrested because of the colour of their skin, DRILL and the type of music they listen to is the excuse. Why it is ok to arrest an individual whom was just revising for an exam, or just calmly walking down the street? As the performance tried to show, nobody wants crime, nobody wants to see their friend being shot in front of their eyes, and nobody wants to be stabbed on their way home from school. People unjustifiably force people into one category, and have been doing so for so long that those people are then saying to themselves “if that’s what they think of me then I might as well fit their description. Maybe then they will leave me alone”. Members of the public are getting up to two years in prison and why? It’s the DRILL music, apparently. 

AFTERMATH

Society has branded DRILL (a form of expression) as a violent form that we must get rid of in order to make the streets safer. In order to really make the streets safer, Theresa May and the government need to actually listen to the youth, the up-and-coming generation, for they have the answers to how to stop gun and knife crime. If you are not listening and have already made your mind up, if you blame DRILL, then you haven’t caught the right guy, you’ve framed him.

-       Selen Adem

 

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

HighRise Theatre

#UKDRILLProject - GQ

What is UK Drill? - Red Bull Music

 Conversation on Drill Arrests - Reddit

Unkown T Interview - Evening Standard

Elephant in the Room // Lanre Malaolu

Bouncing across the stage of Camden People’s Theatre, Lanre Malaolu uses the physical to reflect the social. His movement on stage mirrors his movement through life, echoing the way his body as a black man in Britain today is seen, read, and considered by others. Taking on stereotypes but looping them, making them strange by heightening and twisting their dynamics, his athletic investment adds weight to what might otherwise be familiar representations. The characters Malaolu embodies are varied, from the inspirational football coach to someone all cocky young swagger. They are each archetypes of identity consistently played out in television, film and the media, from news reports to Channel 4 drama. He differentiates each through a discrete posture (like a slouch in a Nando’s booth), and/or a series of sparse actions (sedately trimming hair in a barbershop). 

Although distinct, within the show these different characters, both the central ‘Michael’ and the unnamed others, could easily also make sense as a single figure – one person rendered in multiple fragments. Malaolu’s shifting shows how the articulate and inspirational speech given to even younger men in a half-time huddle might itself cloak a deep insecurity, always at risk of fracturing under the pressure. Or how the wisdom of an older man might reflect a lifetime of the same pressures he now gives advice on. In doing so it makes plain how the marginalizing operations of society relies on those it puts under pressure to prop up those it will fall on next. 

As much as each set of movements, postures and different voices delineate characters, Malaolu’s performance adds one more. The body of a trained dancer, the way someone moves who has put in the time to learn his technique, is itself an embodiment of a personality. A way to exist in the world, a way to define your own body, from the mastery of steps to the poise of the stance. It controls the gaze of the audience, the way the body is seen, in a way that those young men represented here are usually denied. 

-      Lewis Church

 

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Lanre Malaolu

Elephant In the Room – Guardian

‘Up My Streets’ Project – MIND

Perceptions of Young Black Men – Independent

MANDEM– Media platform for young men of colour.

100 Black Men of London 

Hymen Manoeuvre // Evelyn Mok

During her teenage years, Evleyn Mok protected her hymen with ‘a ninja-like focus’. Such candid humour effervesces throughout her show Hymen Manoeuvre. Mok weaves a multi-stranded show around her heritage, generational differences, sex, body shaming, and the personal/political intersections of institutionalised racism, classism and sexism. In the intimate setting of Bunker 1 (Pleasance), Mok losing her virginity at twenty-five is the story tussled into the foreground with plenty of awkward interaction with male audience members. Mok repeating the word ‘vagina’ or ‘my vagina’ feeling palpably radical to some.

And there it is - the discomfort that some may feel at a woman of colour speaking about her vagina a lot, giving a detailed description of her breasts out of a bra, preferring cake to her ‘first time’, shrieking a little, taking up space like she is meant to be there, being funny and maybe - more disruptive in a comedy show - not being funny…

Mok’s writing upends expectations. She critiques racist, sexist, fat-phobic stereotypes by teasing, unravelling and morphing them. More often than not, after a story that sees her bemused, abused or disempowered, her punchlines land the agency firmly back in her hands. This feminist act of claiming power is one in need of tireless repetition to counter the daily aggressors - the manspreaders, the revenge porn video senders, the stand up comedians who spill the beans to their other stand up mates about sleeping with a 25 year old virgin, these mates who then make comedy routines about it…The latter happened to Mok. Her intimacies and right over them became appropriated into someone else’s material. 

Patriarchy teaches girls to be nervous that boys will be trading secrets about them i.e. school gossip or sexting made public. Women are taught simultaneously to guard our bodies for fear of humiliation but loosen them up just the right amount for male pleasure. Mok’s is the too familiar tale of public shaming and Hymen Manoeuvre could be seen as Mok’s way of wrestling back control and making sure people hear her experiences on her own terms. 

As she hurtles us through her autobiography, what opens up is patriarchy’s messages that there is something essentially shameful about the female form and female pleasure. It seems to be only some time after losing her virginity, that Mok asks herself if she had good time. She did not. The suppression of talking about female pleasure within sex education and wider media accompanies the shame many girls and women feel about their bodies. What’s more, female bodies frequently become funny - something to draw ridicule from and, as in the case of Mok, this humour is leveraged to assert male social power. 

Oppressive power structures take so much multi-stranded work to undo. In tales that continually resist collapse into any singularity, we glimpse the burden of this effort. She wonders whether by making the show she is indulging in her shame. She shares the incessant, looping questions she has about someone’s intentions when she first encounters them. At times, there is a sharpness to her tone and the room is silent. The shield of her wit sometimes slips and we as audience are sitting quietly with someone un-filtering themselves and letting us in. Maybe to be this funny and defiant, you have to cut close to your own bones. 

- Alexandrina Hemsley

 

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Hymen ManoeuvreEvelyn Mok 

The Pleasure Principle - International Woman’s Health Coalition

Bitch Media

Eight Women Of Color Comedians on Sexism, Racism and Making People Laugh - Wear Your Voice

Misogyny on Facebook: A Rant About ‘Vagina Cleavage’ - Gal Dem

Jane Horrocks, Nick Vivian and Wrangler // Cotton Panic!

A dramatic soundscape that mixes enigmatic synth, eerie folk music and the percussive thunkings of factory machinery and cotton weavers’ clogs – Cotton Panic! is more of a narrative concert than traditional theatre – a concept album with integrity.

Cotton Panic! tells the story of the 1861 Cotton Famine that struck Manchester during the American Civil War. Manchester at the time was a major manufacturer of cotton garments, and the majority of the cotton came from American plantations. As slaves were emancipated and plantations in the northern states were shut down, Manchester began to starve.

Crucial to the show’s emotional power is the moment when the citizens of Manchester signed a declaration in support of the emancipated slaves, despite the famine. The declaration ends with the words “Onward, ye free men of the north and downward you southern men who want slavery.” In the current climate, there is a temptation to hear the chant as the cry of modern north of England against the Westminster powers that have ignored it for so long. The end of Cotton Panic! even draws parallels with the modern day Black Lives Matter movement and the rise of Donald Trump.

But these comparisons should not be invested in too heavily. The inequalities in our country and our own time, though very much real, are hardly comparable with the Atlantic slave trade. In exemplifying Manchester’s “sacrifice” during the war we risk asserting a narrative about the abolition of slavery in which the white man is the hero.

The message of the show is more egalitarian than heroic though, and by showing the correspondence between the citizens of Manchester and key figures in the abolitionist movement in America, it demonstrates how interconnected the world was, even two hundred years ago. Overall, it demonstrates the need for collective effort in the face of international dilemmas. No country is ever really an island, and society is only bettered by the hard work of soft hands.

- Ciaran Grace

 

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

The Lancashire Cotton Famine

The Lancashire Cotton Famine - Radio 4

The Haitian Revolution:

http://www.blackpast.org/gah/haitian-revolution-1791-1804

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LcV6NTqoyAc

The Emancipation of Russian Serfs - History Today

Jane Horrocks, Nick Vivian and Wrangler // Cotton Panic!

Billed as an industrial music drama, Cotton Panic! offers attendees an opportunity to consider the lives of the 19th-century working class in Lancashire. Building its narrative around electronic music that recalls Manchester’s respect for live arts and culture, the production leverages three projector screens to display larger-than-life images of actors portraying historical testimonies from the time. On stage, actor Jane Horrocks serves alternately as emcee, lead vocalist, and helpless child. She is tasked with carrying the entire 65-minute production, assisted on occasion by a backup dancer and three musicians. For the majority of the show, however, she is on her own. In its content, Cotton Panic! attempts to make a link between the chattel slavery of the southern United States and the lives of Lancashire’s white working class. Based on a decontextualized quote from socialist thinker Karl Marx, it suggests that both were based on capitalist exploitation.

In an effort to humanize narratives of the white working class, the show considers soft hands, the innocence of childhood, and other personal stories. It does this, however, without explicitly undertaking the same process in regard to the black slaves upon which white success was built. Rather, Blackness seemed to me to be represented as a voiceless fusion of features, in which one face becomes the next, as if all black people and their experiences are the same. 

Simultaneously, the show recasts and lionizes the working classes of the time as engaged in high culture, as in its description of a Lancashire family’s prized piano, rather than respecting these communities for their own experiences and cultural forms (the show’s use of clog dancing is a notable exception). In so doing, even as it tries to escape them, I worry that the show falls into two tired and damaging narratives: that white British people cannot consider race except in a sanitized and whitewashed version of history that turns them into heroes, and that one of the only ways black people can be represented in popular culture is as violent or angry slaves.

Cotton Panic! makes some mention of how the white working class (in Manchester, specifically) stood in solidarity with the emancipatory struggles of chattel slaves in the United States. The show framed US President Abraham Lincoln as having begun the US Civil War in a courageous attempt to end slavery, but the reality is that Lincoln wanted to keep the country together and limit the growth of slavery rather than abolish it entirely.

Audiences should be wary of the narrative that Lincoln was a hero who stood against slavery. Historians such as Doris Kearns Goodwin, Ira Berlin, and Eric Foner have argued that Lincoln’s respect for the US Constitution, in which slavery was enshrined at the time, surpassed his moral belief that slavery was wrong. Indeed, it was only after slaves themselves escaped in large numbers from the South, and the North embraced their arrival, that Lincoln saw emancipation as a politically viable policy. These historical factors have contemporary ramifications for the relationship between black minority and white majority communities in the US today, reflecting Foner’s argument that 19th-century “hostility to slavery did not preclude deep prejudices against blacks.” 

Cotton Panic! could do better than focusing on supposed past heroics as an uncritical indication of contemporary progress. Instead, what British society needs is a historically rigorous, socially aware, and honest conversation about how its privileging of Whiteness is predicated on a longstanding and continued oppression of political, racial, and ethnic Blackness.

- Asif Majid

 

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

How British History is Whitewashed and Sanitised - Guardian 

On Hamstringing Working Classes - Open Democracy

Chattel Slavery and British Economies - Public Seminar

Media Representations and Impact on the Lives of Black Men and Boys - The Opportunity Agenda

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass in Britain - Revealing Histories

Abraham Lincoln’s Life and Presidential Administration: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=7487969 http://www.npr.org/2010/10/11/130489804/lincolns-evolving-thoughts-on-slavery-and-freedom https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/1992/12/27/how-the-slaves-freed-themselves/7d58b82c-3446-4f96-a07d-52fc868eb960/?utm_term=.9daccb73eb6a

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in A Multicultural Society 

The Good Immigrant

HOUSE AND AMONGST THE REEDS / Clean Break

HOUSE AND AMONGST THE REEDS / Clean Break

House is a play about a reunion in a British Nigerian family. Two sisters and their mother gather to mark a birthday – but it quickly becomes apparent that problems from the past, including mental health issues, mean any celebrations are premature.