LOCKED SEPARATELY IN OUR HOUSES ACROSS THE COUNTRY FOR THE LAST COUPLE OF MONTHS, WE’VE ALL HAD TO FIND NEW WAYS OF CULTIVATING A SENSE OF COMMUNITY.
Commentators have noted that it is, perhaps, as a result of everyone being stuck at home, primarily communicating via social media, that this time the murder of innocent black people at the hands of the police was not overlooked, and instead led to a global chorus of outrage. As stated by the Bush Theatre, however, the closure of public spaces also means a lack of spaces in which black communities can ‘come together to help and comfort each other through this time’. It is this problem that their recent release The Protest: Black Lives Matter, a series of six videos released via their YouTube channel that range in form from monologue to music to spoken word, seek to address.
The breadth of viewpoints, issues and genres covered by The Protest in six short videos – the longest being just over 9 minutes – is remarkable. The purpose of creating art in a time of crisis is to articulate the seemingly inarticulable mess of emotions jangling in the minds of a community. And, for me, that’s why The Protest succeeds in its aim: I might not physically be with my community, but hearing someone else articulate what I haven’t been able to articulate made me feel like I wasn’t alone.
The piece that resonated with me the most was Anoushka Lucas’ song Your Work. I took a break from social media after the murder of George Floyd and I returned to Instagram the day after #BlackoutTuesday. My feed was suddenly filled with black squares, predominantly posted by white schoolfriends or university friends, with some posts flagging up petitions I could sign or funds I could donate to. Part of me was excited: I have never seen such a widespread condemnation and recognition of the racism that black people face on a daily basis. But, part of me was confused: where had all these people been before, and why were they only deciding to call out racism now? It is these conflicting emotions that Anoushka Lucas manages to articulate. At the beginning of the song she reflects, ‘I know you want to help now. So why can’t I behave?’ Over the course of the song, however, she justifies the anger and confusion she, I, and many others are feeling right now. We are justified in our anger; we are justified in demanding that ‘if you want to fix this / You have to let me cry’; and we are justified in declaring that ‘You do your work ‘cause we’ve done ours’.
Another piece that resonated with me was Fehinti Balogun’s You Just Don’t Get It – And It Hurts. The piece makes innovative use of theatre’s enforced relocation to the internet, as the audience follows the first-person perspective of an unnamed black character (it as though we are texting the messages they are typing) as they text their white friend, Chelsea. The content of their conversation: the ‘n’ word. Once again, a black person is being made to explain to a white person why they shouldn’t say the ‘n’ word. While this piece enforces a sense of community for black Britons – unfortunately I am sure that many of us can relate to having to have this conversation – I would be particularly interested in seeing how white audiences respond to it, especially white people who are still on the fence about whether they should say the ‘n’ word, or not.
Kalungi Ssebandeke’s The Fire This Time and Roy Williams’ Black feature poignant explorations of black masculinity, and the fear that police brutality engenders in young black men. Kalungi Ssebandeke admits that he’s ‘petrified / Makes me wonder if I’m next to die / If they tell me to freeze and I don’t comply’. Meanwhile, although Roy Williams repeatedly tells himself not to cry and to ‘Man yourself up’, as he questions ‘Why they have to do that?’ and ‘Why they have to beat us like that?’, the camera zooms in on his face and his futile effort to wipe away his tears. The piece finishes with the repeated mantra ‘No fear, no fear, no fear, no fear, no fear.’
The Protest therefore cultivates a sense of community by articulating perspectives and feelings that individuals might have struggled to articulate alone. This sense of community is then enforced by a call to action; an empowering statement that enough is enough. In Hey Kid, Matilda Ibini’s resounding advice to her childhood self is ‘not to stay silent’, but ‘to make as much noise as you can’; to always ‘Say something, say something, say something.’ In Kalungi Ssebandeke’s The Fire This Time, he sings the repeated refrain ‘This time it’s the fire/ We’re not singing no more.’ And, in Benedict Lombe’s Do You Hear Us Now? she asserts that ‘it is not enough to just exist if we can’t exist freely and fully and equally’, concluding with the demand that ‘this is the time you will finally hear us’.
It still remains unclear whether we really have reached a turning point in the US and UK’s institutional racism. Watching The Protest, however, reminded me that a protest is not about the actions of an individual, but the actions of a community. It provided me with that sense of community and energy that I have been missing in lockdown, and so I very much recommend watching the videos as a means by which to reflect and reenergise and reconnect as government lockdown restrictions continue.
See more of Bush Theatre’s work via their YouTube account here.