First things first, I would like to congratulate all of the performers for bringing so much variation on to stage and sharing their work. Scratch nights, allows us the opportunity to delve into the minds of a writer just before their work is complete. It’s a great opportunity to see that progress, also allowing them to be able to pick out what works and doesn’t work. Therefore it’s important to realise how vulnerable and important this must be to the writers and performers, sharing their work in the rawest forms.
There were 3 pieces that stood out for me (I’ll highlight them), but I’ll comment on everything in order of appearance.
* First on stage was The Blind Truth written by Annie Mwampulo. (Cast: Annie Mwampulo, Khadie Fall, Alice Vilanculo, Madeline Charlemagne and Elizabeth Hollinshe) This piece is set in a dystopian world, commenting on what could happen if inequality and injustice were to thrive. There were chairs scattered around the stage, and four black female actors dressed in ripped clothing, their faces were marked with a white line across the forehead and one going down the nose forming a T. A white woman dressed in black with glasses, a very stern face and heavy dark makeup walks in with a cello and sits next to an audience member on the front row. She sets the mood through out the piece, playing whenever anything intense occurred. Behind the girls on stage, was footage of violent and depressing moments in society I.e hunger, war, riots, police brutality, awful politicians, racial attacks, protests and of course Donald Trump. This piece was heavy in its physical theatre, when the last cast member arrived a white woman dressed in all black, lost, blindfolded and looking for her dog there was a great movement sequence where the four women lifted her up and in various ways. My friend saw that as perhaps how currently many people of colour put white people on a pedestal, however I saw it as them attempting to guide this blind white woman to the truth, to recognise the issue of the past and see the white privileges she had/has. This blind character (played by Ilaria Ciardelli) does a monologue explaining why she has become blind, to which she replies having suffered from a “condition” (my friend suggested this being the ignorance she developed with age) in her monologue she explains that what she remembers from before is the colours, the culture, the vibrant people etc. My friend thought that this is symbolic to age, when we are younger we are able to integrate with people, cultures and differences, we are interested to know more. Which is true, the older we grow the less inclined we are to get to know. I felt slightly different however, I assumed she had always been ignorant, and that once she became blind she was able to finally see what the world had to offer “the blind truth”. This piece is a great way of asking what if, it will definitely benefit from having more work done and being a lot longer because in the short space of 15 minutes, I don’t think it sold what it had to offer, but it has something very promising to give. I also felt that it could have been pushed more, more daring, saying what it actually wanted to say in terms of racism being the reason for this new world. I thought the use of Four Women by Nina Simone was beautiful, because it’s one of my favourite songs and only now did I realise the four women on stage “the remaining four” represent the four women on the song – that was sick!
Second on stage was Two Absent Friends by Sarah Thewlis a solo piece about bereavement and mental health, particularly mental health in men which is really important to talk about, as it’s the leading cause of death amongst men in the U.K. This piece was delivered in song and spoken word. A story about Joy and Benjamin best friends from a young age, but were separated when they moved to different places. Sarah was owning and claiming her space on stage, it felt like something very personal to her, which was great to see and experience her being able to share with us. However, there wasn’t much connection between her and the audience or myself in particular. I didn’t really understand much, maybe because it was a story I wasn’t familiar with, but I would have liked to feel more involved if she looked at us or maybe behind us or spoke to us. I couldn’t catch a few things because they went very fast, especially when there were a lot of crucial things being said. There was however many comedic and sarcastic moments that worked very well.
White Noise by Lynsey Mertenstyn was next up (cast: Winnie Arhin, Amelia Grant, Jacqui Grant) This piece spoke about the ethics of TV documentaries, how things are set up to portray people in a light that isn’t necessarily truthful. There were 3 black women on stage, this was a point made by the writer herself. She pressed that to see black women on stage is rare and the more it’s done the better. One of the characters Rakyat is a Muslim Nigerian refugee living in England, her best friend Mary is the complete opposite of her English born and has a completely different outlook on life (think Teen Mom the TV show). Martha the producer, wants to share Rakyat’s story but in her own terms. Rakyat wants to prove that she is as much a feminist as any other, that her hijab isn’t oppressive, addressing issues surrounding Boko Haram and other things concerning her womanhood, her blackness and her religion. Martha’s vision is to send her off to the most white part of Britain, have her work there for a while and document how people treat her. Almost treating her like a pawn. This piece was quite interesting to have 3 black women play distinctively different characters, that had nothing to do with what we already see on TV or stage was impressive. These are the type of black women you can bump into every day in London. I would have liked to see a more organic relationship between the characters, there were times I couldn’t hear certain things or understand the context of things because of how they were delivered.
* Pretty for a Black girl by Jess Espin Thurger (cast: Jess Espin-Thurgur, Thea Gajic, Lauryn Marshall and Ivana Mazza-Coates) I was really looking forward to see this one. Particularly because it was written by a white woman, I was intrigued to see what she had to say about the statement. I must say I was not disappointed, for a piece like that the actors must firstly be bold strong and definitely own the stage. That is exactly what these four women did. This piece is a commentary on the same thing many black actors, black female actors have been harping on about, the limitations and the stereotypes faced in the acting industry is insane. I genuinely felt that this performance detailed that exactly, although for those who are not familiar with being put in a box it may have seemed like an exaggeration, but I can 100% say that it wasn’t. It starts in the waiting room of an acting agency, opening with Thea Gajic’s character on the phone to a friend detailing her own acting struggles, which vary from her being late to deciding whether to do things for the art or for the money. This conversation was hilarious and delivered with such brilliance, her character was conceited, self-important, over the top and very superficial. Meanwhile Lauryn Marshall’s character Atiyah, sat patiently waiting to be called into her audition. The interactions between the agent played by Jess and Atiyah are significantly different when compared to Jess and Thea’s character, which was immediately noted by the audience. As soon as she went into the audition space she was being regarded like a diamond in the rough, the idea of being pretty for a black girl. Atiyah mentioned her love for classical theatre, the greats like Shakespeare and Chekov but was told by the agents that that can come later that first she must be seen. To be seen in their terms was narrowed down into two categories ghetto or slave. After having started her Shakespeare monologue she was interrupted, the agents had two parts for her. One robbing Remy weave from a black hair shop in Hackney with her friends (one black one mixed race) the other part being a slave in America. These parts were delivered with absolute comedic gold, the Hackney scene had Ivana doing an off-African accent that sounded more Spanish than anything and Jess continually kissing her teeth. The slavery scene was slightly more intense, still had funny moments but much more serious. It made you realise that as funny a commentary as it may be, it is an immediate reflection of what actually happens out there. I would have like to see more of what Atiyah had to say, Lauryn Marshall also did an amazing job her facial expressions at some of the absurdities being said made me laugh so much. This was the perfect cast for this piece. This was actually my favourite, it proves that in order to have a safe and healthy relationship with people who are of different races of our own it’s important we realise our privilege when we have them and how we can use that privilege to call out important things. Jess did this very well, it was beautifully written and very critical. I had to let her know that it was great, I feel this is something that should definitely be catered to a white audience to educate them in these issues because sadly sometimes people only truly listen to people who look like them. And using dark comedy as Jess said also means people are less willing to switch off. This is the type of freedom white writers have the some black writers may feel slightly apprehensive to touch on because they don’t want to appear like they are continuously using the “race card” (I’m not a believer in this term). I myself fall into this sometimes feeling I’m not entirely free to say exactly what I want to say how I want to say it, that I must sugar coated it to soften the blow. But I’ve learnt to be unapologetically black and keep striving to ensure that I am. I didn’t feel that Jess was doing us a favour or out of pity (some people may interpret it as that) but it was a genuine and honest response to society. We do need white people to speak up on this, not only when it’s convenient but all the time when they see it.
* Last but not least Coconuts by Ollie Clark. (Cast Daniel Wye, Helen Kavanagh and Grant Leat) I was in stitches and had serious knots in my throat while watching this one. Set in 1233BC Ancient Greece, where a master and his servant lost in a baron wasteland are forced to bond despite their social differences, creating an unlikely friendship and “sexuality Coconuts”. Not sure how to best describe this, it’s one of those you had to have been there moments, because whatever I say will not make it justice. Let’s begin with the set, Helen Kavanagh’s character brings in two piles of cardboard boxes stacked up to 3 feet. One box was set onto the left and the other onto the right of the stage, one box said Master at the top then “a very nice hat, nice sandals, nice robes, comfy bed” the other “Servant, heavy bags” (I can’t quite remember the rest). Once she had settled these, she looked around the audience scared-confused-embarrassed-ashamed! She then begins, communicating with through signed papers. Something along the lines of “I’ve got an announcement” “the rest” “of the crew” “quit” “I’m the director’s sister” “so it’s just me” “our play starts at the beginning”. Then in come Daniel Wye the master, leading the servant Grant Leat. Daniel is counting with his eyes closed, when he turns around to find Grant still there, he is disappointed. They’re playing hide and seek but Grant makes a point of “I don’t know why you insist on playing when there is no where to hide, we are in a deserted island”. The two characters are complete opposites Daniel’s is a overly feminine, whiney, demanding brat. Where as Grant is a more serious and grounded individual. Helen’s performance was so incredible, her character said absolutely nothing she was a Mr Bean. Whenever any lighting or sound was necessary on stage she’d be the one to create it. For instance, there was a moment where there was a storm, so she used a spray bottle and started blowing like the wind. At one point Grant was hit by a flying rock, she had to scrunch a piece of paper and throw it at his head. However since that didn’t work she hit him with a maraca instead. When Daniel needed his hat, he had to say “here have my hat” about 10 times she didn’t hear him the first time which was hilarious. Daniel was also equally funny he had me in fits, everything he did in the expense of Grant’s character was outstanding. When he had asked for food, Grant gave him mouldy bread as it was all they had left, after one bite he spat it out. He kept spitting it out, taunting Grant with the bread and making him fetch. Despite the laughter coconuts also had an important message, mocking the absurdities of social status. When the two characters had agreed that they would be equals, Daniel had to give up his possessions to Grant but instead of making them equals it just reversed the power and Grant became as ludicrous as Daniel, and this was such a fantastic exchange.
And that is that. Check out this performers and writers seriously magnificent!