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                                                           De-colonizing Theatre Part 1 

 

Call it essentialism. Call it domination. Call it arrogance. Yet if we are genuine in adopting a completely fresh operating model for a theatre which is actively de-colonizing itself, then we must acknowledge how destructive it is that European theatrical traditions are imposed as a universal paradigm  trampling all over other performance e cultures. And by maintaining and adhering to those all too familiar structures, the colonization process surreptitiously (or indeed wilfully) continues.

 

It’s like we’ve all been breathing this toxic air – and it’s nearly killed some of us – whilst others have kept their hands on secret supplies of oxygen – and we all think this is a normal state of affairs. 

 

Raewyn Connell’s article on De-colonizing sociology vividly evokes the intellectual resistance that accompanied colonization from the start : ‘One of the most amazing documents in the history of empire is the Nueva Coronica of Gueman Poma (...) It is an illustrated description of the social and political order under the Incas, a narrative of conquest and an extended critique of the violence and inequality of colonial society under  Spanish rule – and it was written in 1615. The author was a contemporary of Shakespeare.’


 

Cut to present day Aotearoa :

One approach to consider is that of Te Rākau Hua o Te Wao Tapu, is  the  Māori community theatre trust operating in Aotearoa. More commonly referred to by its shortened name, Te Rākau, the company adopts a fusional approach of the therapeutic encounter, ngā mahi a te rēhia (traditional Māori performing arts) and Western theatre conventions within a ‘bicultural theatre practice’ marshaled by kaupapa Māori principles.  For over 30 years the company has instigated  a decolonising principle which determines  how the group composes  and presents live theatre in spaces where there is a clash between the alleged  egalitarian, racially harmonious society Aoitearoa purports to be  and  the daily enactments  of Māori dissent against colonial authority: schools, prisons, tertiary institutions, youth justice residential centres, marae (communal gathering places) and mainstream theatre.

 

 

There are several elements  which make up constitute Te Rākau’s style of creative practice called Theatre Marae.Taking its roots in the political activism of the 1970s,  the Māori Renaissance describes the continued conscious effort   to challenge colonial attitudes in New Zealand society  which undermine Māori aspirations for autonomy and self expression –particularly in the arts, media, health, education and politics. 

In practical terms, there are 7 ritual phases which are implemented to facilitate the company working alongside colleagues outside the Maori culture :  Takahi whare: tramping the house; Mihi Whakatau:the formal welcome; Karakia: invocation; Mahi Tahi: work together; Porowhita: group circle; Matapaki: discussion; Poroaki: farewell. The words themselves indicate what attention has been paid to clarifying, purifying and consolidating cross-cultural communication and creativity.

   

It feels like that process is yet to begin in the UK – there’s a lot more tramping of houses, of deeply examining the structures that have created division for so long, that needs to be put in motion. Time to let the toxicity of the air escape. Creating a new breathing space for us all.

                                            De-colonizing theatre Part 2 

 

In my February newsletter on the same theme, I spoke of essentialism, domination, arrogance. I referred to toxic air and how some folks have secret supplies of oxygen. Then I took a look at New Zealand.

I’ve always taken a broad world view of the creative sector but the pandemic and the changes it has wrought on all our lives have allowed me to explore in more depth how other countries manage the arts.

Serah Chibombwe is a Zambian live artist/visual artist  living between Lusaka and Livingstone. She contributed to Sheba Soul Ensemble’s performance Are you sure that we are awake? She provided us with a documentary film entitled Love and gratitude in which 6 Zambians sit around a fire ad storytelling (and singing) ensues. 

 

Serah Chiombwe I see


 

At the end of the story, all the listeners are invited to share what that story has given them, how it has resonated with their life. It’s a great film for many reasons. It really spells out the different living circumstances of Afrikan people and those of us based in richer parts of the world. Anyone wishing to watch it can email shebasoulensemble@gmail.com  and we would be happy to share it with you. But it was what Serah shared in the Q ad A session that really preoccupies me. She spoke about the rarity of the moment she had just filmed, how, almost overnight, with the advent and roll out of mobile phones,  the old  storytelling practices disappeared. Young people do not want to be sitting round a fire on the bare earth, paying attention to what the elders have to tell them. They too want to be hooked in to the latest Netflix, Tiktok or youtube sensation. So Western, or in the case of Tiktok, Eastern values triumph again.

 

  

How soul-destroying that what have traditionally been more community-focused ways of thinking, being, creating art and theatre, are being so easily persuaded that Western fodder is better. Fodder that specializes in the sexualisation of women and girls, in exploitation – both visible and invisible on  so many different levels, that is diametrically opposed to social elevation and equality. Fodder that celebrates violence, greed and egocentricity.

Canada is one of the areas I have been exploring over the past few years. The British Council sent me there to connect with Black artists in Montreal and it was an amazing experience. I checked out theatre, dance, visual arts and the film-making sectors. The first thing that leaps out is there is so much more funding available to indigenous and BLACK* artists. Which results in it being stronger, more vibrant, more audacious, less compromising.

 I learnt about  Anishinaabe South Asian playwright Yolanda Bonnell, (https://www.yolandabonnell.com)  interviewed by Shansari Sur in https://www.intermissionmagazine.ca/features/decolonizing-theatre-practice-as-a-playwright-and-performer-a-conversation-with-yolanda-bonnell/. Yolanda   articulated a request  to have her latest play bug only reviewed by Indigenous, Black or people of colour reviewers (IBPOC). Of course this was considered highly controversial and, not surprisingly in this day and age, prompted a storm of racism and vitriol. 

 

Yolanda identifies this as one way of de-colonizing theatre. In a recent interview she acknowledges ‘Institutions want to make us feel like they are doing us a favour by inviting us into their space… I mean, part of that is true. They do have that power. These institutions predominantly run by white folks do have the power to amplify voices; that is them using their privilege. But I think that we have way more power to challenge these systems and institutions, and say that, “This is how we need to work in your space. If you want to work with us, you need to meet us at this point.” So that it becomes a conversation or an agreement or treaty; that there is a way of working that is not one holding power over the other… I think it’s time to use our voices, and institutions need to be backing that.’

 

 

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith Gifts for Trading Land with White People (1992) © Jaune Quick-to-See Smith.

 

Bonnell  originates from the Ojibwe tribe which lives by the seven principles -, entitled the seven grandmother/grandfather teachings of love, respect, honesty, bravery, humility, truth and wisdom. She recognizes that current theatre practices are neither healthy nor sustainable. She identifies  how important it is to overhaul the system – bring in talking circles to open up each working day in a mixed environment , implement shorter rehearsal days, shorter working weeks. She acknowledges that de-colonizing is a messy process : ‘It’s breaking down structures, and when you tear down structures, you are left with a mess.’

It’s already a mess.

But we have a chance to change our entire way of thinking about the arts. About who does what, and why and making sure that we fully address under-representation, not in a tokenistic, tick box way. But from a place of truth.

Not violence, greed, egocentricity which contaminate the water tables of our artistic landscape. 

But love, respect, honesty, bravery, humility, truth and wisdom.

 

                                                              Magic 

 

2021 the year of magic! There I have said it now, so let us bring it into being.

And if you are looking for magic, no better place to start than the sublime work of Ntozake Shange, Afrikan-American playwright and poet (1948-2018).

 

I was writer in residence at the Afrikan Caribbean centre in Huddersfield at a time when writers’  residencies generally lasted a year!!! One of the  events I pulled out of the bag was a poetry festival featuring Black poets. Ntozake was poet Number 3, after Lemn Sissay, Jean Binta Breeze  and before Merle Collins. She showed up 90 minutes before her performance in a gigantic hat. No, she staggered in 90 minutes before her performance considerably the worse for drink. That threw me then. But I have seen the pattern over and over again in regard to Black artists (though not exclusively, of course). Sensitive souls who are so afflicted by the racism,  hostility and negative traits of human nature generally, who are pierced so deeply by it all, emotionally decimated because of it all, that they need to cling to something to get by.

She delivered a reading, which introduced me to her amazing play/choreopoem  For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf. Signed several books (I’ve got one) and then I took her to a ‘typical Yorkshire pub’ where she opted for ‘mild’ over ‘bitter ‘consolidated by several whiskies. Then a couple of doors down the unlit streets that she illuminated with wit and unimpaired clarity, to her hotel, and she was gone.

Except she wasn’t. She is one of those people who continue to reside in me. Who inspires me. Who nourishes me and pushes me to achieve more...

 

Where there is a woman there is magic. If there is a moon falling from her mouth, she is a woman who knows her magic, who can share or not share her powers. A woman with a moon falling from her mouth, roses between her legs and tiaras of Spanish moss, this woman is a consort of the spirits”  from her novel  Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo

 

That seems like a great place to start. Women and magic. Seems like all of us ladies need to be casting our spells, laying our intentions and throwing our weight into getting the world back on track...

But there is more. For Colored Girls  is a feast of a play, introducing through poetic monologues,  life stories of tragedy and collective empowerment  of seven Black women.  I won’t spoil their power by trivialising them with summary, but suffice to say, these are not stories about sipping tea and knitting. As these next few quotations illustrate :

one thing I don’t need
is any more apologies
i got sorry greetin me at my front door
you can keep yrs
i don’t know what to do wit em
they don’t open doors
or bring the sun back
they don’t make me happy
or get a mornin paper
didn’t nobody stop usin my tears to wash cars
cuz a sorry For Colored Girls

 

Or even :

somebody/ anybody
sing a black girl's song
bring her out
to know herself
to know you
but sing her rhythms
carin/ struggle/ hard times
sing her song of life
she's been dead so long
closed in silence so long
she doesn't know the sound
of her own voice
her infinite beauty
she's half-notes scattered
without rhythm/ no tune
sing her sighs
sing the song of her possibilities
sing a righteous gospel
let her be born
let her be born
& handled warmly. For Colored Girls

So evocative and moving…

Like Ntozake Shange’s own life. Her accommodating her life to bipolar disorder, navigating her addictions and still remaining supremely creative. Even when she had had multiple stokes and lost her ability to hold a pen, or even later, when battling new technology to not standardize her grammar or add capitals when these had been deliberately discarded, her creativity soared.

Magic. Women. And stirring words that don’t do any of us any harm : 

Through my tears
I found god in myself
and I loved her fiercely.