Black Lives, Black Words

Black Lives, Black Words premiered in Chicago in July 2015. This international project has since explored the Black diaspora’s experiences in some of the largest multicultural cities in the world, Chicago, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Toronto and now London. Over sixty Black writers from the UK, USA, and Canada have each written a short play to address Black issues today. This blog is taken from the introduction to the book, written by Madani Younis, the Artistic Director of The Bush theatre where the pieces were performed last month.


It’s on us. It’s always been on us.

From Claudia Jones to Michael X, from Frank Crichlow to Darcus Howe to Doreen and Neville Lawrence, there is a rich and fierce tradition of resistance that has defined the past century in this great city.

2016 was a significant year in the UK. Following the Brexit vote to take us out of the European Union, few of us could have predicted the steep rise in racially motivated hate crime, or the vitriol that was unleashed on the ‘immigrant’, a term which became a dangerous and charged catch-all and scapegoat. And a term that, in the eyes of the dominant right-wing media, is almost always defined as non-white. That exists outside the bubble of privilege and power occupied by wealthy, white Europeans.

It has been a 12 months in which our world seems to have shrunk around us, to have become smaller and more insular. Many of us who had always called this country home, suddenly began to question what home really meant.

Eight years ago, when the first presidency of an African American was in its infancy, many looked forward to a new horizon, to a post-racial reality. Instead, the list of Black lives violently ended, of justice miscarried, has only grown longer and more terrible. Against this backdrop, we’ve seen a rise of right-wing thought in both volume and acceptability, from the anti-Islamic, anti-immigrant rhetoric of a new breed of populist politician through the proliferation of the Alt-Right, to the very different president now squatting in the White House.

Black Lives Matter is different in both form and function from the civil rights movements of the past. As Jeff Chang notes in his extraordinary book We Gon’ Be Alright, this was not a movement which formed around one forceful, charismatic male voice. It was started by three women: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi. It is an insurgent movement; a reaction; a disruption. It has a sense of urgency, of crisis and of place. It represents the latest form in a continuum of struggle that stretches back as far as slavery, a new, horizontal, open source resistance.

It speaks to an American reality, a 21st century reality, to the prison-industrial complex, urban poverty, and the frustration of an underclass who found themselves left in limbo and threatened by systemic violence even under Obama.

I have been struck by how the media perception of the Black Lives Matter movement has seen it framed as a negative force for change, and I would fervently argue that instead it gives a voice to the voiceless in political debate, debate no longer centred on New York, Washington DC and the Houses of Parliament. That it opens up a creative space for Black activists and artists to fashion and articulate a response.

In a year in which the Bush Theatre has been nomadic, in which we’ve spent the last 12 months working in and alongside the lives and communities of West London, it seems appropriate that we return to Black Lives Black Words. Initiated in 2015 by poet, playwright and producer Reginald Edmund, Black Lives Black Words is a conversation held across continents, where we come together to speak to the vital question of what is the value of Black lives in America, the UK and across the world.

Madani Younis, Artistic Director of The Bush theatre

I was 15 years old when Stephen Lawrence was murdered, a Black British teenager killed in a racially motivated attack. The ripples of that watershed moment in media and public perception of Black lives in the UK flowed through my late teens and my early 20’s. The Macpherson Report, the growing awareness of institutional police racism, the killing of Christopher Alder, and of Mark Duggan, and the subsequent 2012 London riots. Since 1990, a tenth of identified deaths in police custody were people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. There is a concussive effect of turning on the news each day and seeing men and women who look like you portrayed so negatively, and violently. There is a concussive effect to daily reminders that in the eyes of some, you do not belong, and your voice is not welcome. So it is no surprise to me that we have seen the emergence of our own Black Lives Matter movement in the UK and across Europe, as a vital shared form of resistance to a conservativism that is wrecking lives and silencing dissent.

As a theatre, we have always existed in Shepherd’s Bush, on one of the country’s most multicultural roads, but also a place of extreme contrast, where some of the city’s greatest deprivation exists a street or two away from its most valuable housing. And these are extremes which so often break down across racial and class lines.

When we first welcomed Reginald and Black Lives Black Words to our theatre, where together with Artistic Directors of the Future they brought these vital voices to the UK, we felt a kinship with their concerns and their strategies. So it seemed only appropriate that now, as we prepare to re-open our building on the Uxbridge Road, that we should mark that with a statement about the kind of work we want to enable, the kind of voices we want to amplify, the kind of world we want to live in. To return to the words of Jeff Chang

The horizon towards which we move always recedes before us. The revolution is never complete. … All that signified progress may in time be turned against us. But redemption is there for us if we are always in the process of finding love and grace.’

– Madani Younis, March 2017


You can find out more about Black Lives, Black Words HERE, and more about Black Lives Matter HERE. With thanks to Reginald Edmund and Madani Younis.

 

“Politics is life” – Juliet Gilkes Romeo talks diversity, progress and playwriting

Juliet Gilkes Romero’s new play Upper Cut tackles the struggle for racial diversity in British politics. Here, Juliet tells Oberon about her inspiration, her research, and her hopes for how the play can influence the wider discussion. Upper Cut is on at Southwark Playhouse until 7 February.

Your play Upper Cut is loosely based on real events at the dawn of ‘New Labour’ in the mid-90s. Can you tell us any more about what inspired you to write this play?

There are currently just 27 Black and Ethnic Minority (BME) MPs out of a total of 650. I find this slightly shocking that the mother of parliaments is still so unrepresentative and I Upper Cut by Juliet Gilkes Romerowanted to know why? When Director Lotte Wakeham and actress Emma Dennis Edwards asked me to write a play about the black political landscape my answer was an immediate yes.

Upper Cut is seen from the perspective of a black female politician and unravels the fight for diversityand black representation through today’s coalition politics, the hope and rebirth of New Labour and straight into the troubled heart of a Labour party struggling under the might of Thatcher’s Tory revolution.

To understand present and past I had to re-examine an era when there were no black or Asian MPs in the House of Commons and why. It’s exciting to be the first new political play in a year where the general election could be the most unpredictable votein living memory.

I was very conscious of this while researching Upper Cut and believe the main three political parties will be forced to re-evaluate and finally embrace Britain’s diverse voters and the racial mix of Parliament.

The campaign group Operation Black Vote was established in 1996, the summer before New Labour’s landslide election victory.  How do you assess the progress made since then, specifically in terms of BME representation and political participation?

The progress is slow. Despite the triumph of 1987, there are currently just nine African and Afro-Caribbean MPs. Five of them are Labour MPs, a number that has barely increased since the late 1980s.

I admire their achievement in entering the House of Commons but I do feel a sense of disappointment that the figure is so low. I think this is best summed up by Diane Abbot. In the 2013 document ‘One Nation Labour, Black Representation Across The Party’ she  says “If you had told me that, 26 years later, the numbers of African and Afro-Caribbean Labour members of parliament would scarcely be any greater, I would have been shocked. We thought that we were opening a door, through which many others would flood through.”

OBV

© Operation Black Vote – http://www.obv.org.uk/

We clearly need to see more BME MPs and I am hopeful that my play will contribute positively and passionately to this debate. One of the black activists I interviewed as part of my research is now competing to be a Labour candidate in a North London seat.  I wish him well!

You were formerly a reporter and broadcast journalist for the BBC. How has this informed your playwriting career?

I think the years I have spent as a journalist have defined my playwriting.  Journalism has taught me to truly listen to what others have to say and because I’ve had the privilege of reporting overseas I am very drawn to writing stories outside of the traditional western perspective and indeed the ‘establishment’ wherever that may be.
When travelling through countries such as Ethiopia, Cuba and Haiti (and often alone) I learnt not to have any preconceived ideas about what I wanted to see or hear.
I have tackled subjects including genocide in Darfur, why we go to war, revolution and now the status of British parliamentary politics. I am always trying to surprise myself and hopefully the audience.

Upper Cut draws occasional similarities between the underrepresentation of women in politics to that of BME individuals; do you think these are issues that need to be treated with equal concern?

Absolutely. The Labour party transformed parliamentary politics through All Women Shortlists. It’s extraordinary when you consider that back in 1995 an industrial tribunal ruled the Labour party had broken the law by imposing the scheme.  But nothing else worked before then and it was a battle worth fighting and continues to this day.

What I find ironic is that the same constructive effort to reverse the under representation of women in politics is not used to do the same for ethnic diversity in Parliament. Why is the strategy good for one group and not for another? The Conservatives did manage to secure more minority MPs in 2010 by placing some on a candidates’ A-list. But the three main parties are still falling painfully short of reflecting the racial mix of the constituents they claim to represent.

The use of music in Upper Cut seems particularly significant – can you explain a little bit more about your song choices and their relationship to the script?

Music influences political movements and culture and I wanted certain tracks to reflect the evolution of Upper Cut’s unfolding years.

There are ten tracks in all but briefly It’s A Man’s World but sung by Cher ironically echoes the simmering tensions over  the selection of female  parliamentary candidates in the ‘90s. It attributes all the efforts of the modern world to men while almost grudgingly recognising that such progress would ‘mean nothing without a woman or a girl’.

Steel Pulse and Prodigal Son was a must.  During the ‘80s the band closely allied themselves to Rock Against Racism, a movement set-up to oppose racial conflict. Prodigal Son is very much Michael’s anthem. The paradox is that as he grows older he moves away from his roots and identity.

Two Tribes by Frankie Goes to Hollywood mirrors the opposing and entrenched political positions adopted by Karen and Barry. Their ideological fight unleashes a ‘cold war’ between them that lasts a while. During the ‘80s fears about global nuclear conflict and warring adversaries were at a peak.  Young Gifted and Black speaks for itself and is used in Scene 8 to underscore the idealism and hope of two you black activists determined to transform the landscape of British politics but in different directions.

Your play also explores the relationship that young people have with politics and politicians. What do you think can be done to help young people, in particular those from minority backgrounds, engage with current politics?

Politics should be compulsory on the school curriculum. I hope that doesn’t sound draconian but politics is life and if young people do not understand how democracy and parliament work they will never feel the motivation to visit a ballot box. Understanding politics should be as important as learning to read regardless of ethnic background.

Michael’s character appears to strive for a government that does not need to consciously acknowledge its election of black MPs, whilst Karen wants to keep fighting for black power by pushing for initiatives and schemes – is either solution preferable?

I do not claim to have the answer but deliberately set up the question, in the hope that the tension between idealism and political pragmatism makes for a politically compelling play.  I think both Karen and Michael have their strong and weak points and I would happily have my last supper with both and argue with them until the end of time! Barry too!