Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Great White Director

Yesterday afternoon, I went along to Chickenshed to see an open dress rehearsal of Romeo and Juliet.  This is a co-production by Bilimankhwe Arts, who share our office, and Nanzikambe Arts in Malawi.  There's a terrific cast of Malawian actors, speaking mainly Chichewa but also some English, and the piece is directed by Amy Bonsall.  It's performing tonight in Stratford, and then goes back to Malawi, where it will tour open-air venues, largely with the aim of making sense of the play to Malawian youth, who have the honour of studying it for their exams.  My sense is that it will blow their brains.

The play is radically cut (running about 90 minutes) and is delivered in a very direct, storytelling style.  The costumes are traditional African, and so is the music.  There are virtually no props and no set at all - the show will work fantastically in open-air village spaces, school halls, and in Nanzikambe's own open-air theatre.  It's rough, immediate, unpretentious and exciting.  


There were about ten of us invited guests at the rehearsal, one of whom was Emer O'Toole, who works with Helen at Royal Holloway, and who Amy had invited on the back of a piece she wrote for the Guardian on the Globe to Globe Festival.  After the rehearsal (which she clearly enjoyed), Emer asked Amy, and Bilimankhwe's Artsitic Director Kate Stafford, about the "political paradigm" of the company being composed of black actors, but the director being white.  It led to a pretty lively debate, into which I got drawn - and so did the actors.


Emer's case (and I'll try to represent this accurately - but feel free to comment if you're reading this, Emer) was that the position of power in the majority of 'intercultural' productions tends to be held by 'the white person with the money'.  This, she felt, perpetuated a colonial relationship between Europe and its former colonies.  It's an issue I have faced before - though always from white middle-class intellectuals, and usually in relation to my directing 'black work' in the UK.  From the point of view of Border Crossings, my answer is always that we don't do 'black work', but that we create theatre which deals with the fact that different cultures now inhabit the same spaces, globally and at more local levels, and that somehow we need to negotiate ways of living together.  We won't achieve that by separatism.  Even when I have directed an all-black cast, in The Dilemma of a Ghost, it was in a production exploring the relationship between African culture and the westernised cultures of the diaspora - and the cast included English actors as well as Ghanaian ones, precisely so the culture clash could be real.  I deliberately decided not to produce Ama Ata Aidoo's other play, Anowa, which is actually the finer piece of writing in purely literary terms, precisely because in that play Africa speaks to Africa, and I felt that I had no voice in that particular dialogue, and neither did the UK audience.  


We talked about the RSC's Julius Caesar (pictured), which has an all-black cast, but is directed by white director Greg Doran.  Emer asked why, given that the company had assembled this cast, they could not also find a black director.  My response was that the decision to set the production in Africa surely was the direction - and that to hire a black director after that decision had been made would have been tokenistic in the extreme.  The issue here is surely not that the cast is black and the director is white, but that the production has been made by a group of English people (yes, the black actors are English), talking about Africa as a useful shorthand for a violent, unstable and superstitious world.  That seems to me to be much more problematic than skin colour  - in the same way that Rustom Bharucha has shown Brook's Mahabharata to be an appropriation of Indian culture for Western ends.  That's where the real neo-colonialism is to be found.


But the strongest point in the argument was made by the actors, particularly by Aaron Ngalonde Nhlane, who is also a director with Nanzikambe.  He clearly has some knowledge of arrogant western directors who impose their will on African casts - he did a very funny impression of the process.  But Amy's work has not been like that, he explained.  Her direction has been about facilitating a collaboration, in which she brought her understanding of Shakespearean English, and the actors brought their own language, their knowledge of Malawian culture, and their sense of the characters.  And this is surely what an intercultural production has to be - not a 'power relationship', but a democratic space, in which everybody has an equal voice.


I acknowledge that this does not always happen.  But it had happened in this production, and it is also what we do at Border Crossings.  There is, of course, some sort of power inherent in being 'the director': but, as every true artist and every true democrat knows, the only way to deal with power is to give it up to a wider constituency.  That seems to me to be a lot more important than skin-colour.


I respect Emer's point, I really do.  But we have to get beyond it.  It's crazy, in a globalised world, to say that only black people can talk about Africa or Chinese people talk about China.  We have to have dialogues - and to discriminate as to who can take part in them on the basis of colour will prevent artists of integrity (like Amy, and like Aaron) from working together.  And that is dangerous.  Because the world needs what they can make in collaboration - something much bigger than they could make alone.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Global Savages

The last couple of days at the Festival have been packed with discussions - not all of them with people actually appearing here, although everyone is associated with the ideas behind Planet IndigenUs in some way.  The British Council in Canada, who sponsored my flight here, are full of ideas to support future collaborations with this country - which is pleasing, as it looks like there will be some!

The most important meeting - by which I mean the longest and the deepest - was with Ron Berti from Debajehmujig (which means Storytellers).  I'd been aware of this extraordinary company for a while, and the ever-helpful Bruce Sinclair from the Canada Council (who memorably dance the M├ętis jig at the Origins opening last year) suggested I should get in touch with them and see if we could meet while I was here.  Long-term followers of this blog will know that I once tried to drive from Toronto to Manitoulin Island, where they are based, and failed to make it, crashing a hire car on the way.  So I was deeply impressed that Ron not only responded warmly to my email, but also got in his car and drove for seven hours to meet me.  We talked for three hours - about a great many things - and then he got back in the car and drove straight back again.  Which was a pretty long day for him.  

Most theatre-makers dealing with the indigenous experience, whether in Canada, Australia, the US, New Zealand or elsewhere, are to some degree people living and operating in an urban space.  Their work is often about the complex identities which result from combining a sense of living in a tradition with the demands of the contemporary environment.  Often that tension results in brilliant drama - the work of Marie Clements, who I saw on Sunday, being a very good case in point.  Debajehmujig are different.  They live and work on a reservation - indeed, the island is actually unceded territory - and they operate within indigenous social and cultural structures and protocols.  Joe, their Artistic Director, is a storyteller because he was chosen to be one at the age of 11.  He is finding new ways to discharge his cultural obligations in dialogue with the contemporary world.  The emphasis in this company's work is not on the hybrid identity of the modern aboriginal experience, however, but on 18,000 years of continuous history and culture.  It's a long time.  As Ron says, looked at this way, the colonial experience is rather new.  If Native American history was compressed into a month, Columbus arrived yesterday afternoon.

Our three hours are rich and fruitful, and we leave with a sense that this is an important first encounter, that will lead on to more prolonged and profound collaboration.  There's a great deal of work to do first, of course - but we're already talking about work which we can include in Origins 2015, and show in Canada as well.  

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Recitation of the Great Law

This image is an artwork derived from a wampum belt.  Contrary to what Hollywood would have us believe, wampum is not "Indian money" but a form of treaty, written in image.  On this famous wampum, the two lines represent the Iroquois and the European colonisers - two cultures operating in parallel, and heading in the same direction.

This was just one of many things I learnt yesterday at the Six Nations Reserve, where the Woodland Cultural Centre operates as the Harbourfront's partner in presenting Planet IndigenUs.  The "Rez" is large, though nowhere near the size it should be according to the original treaties.  There are no visible borders - but it's clear when you are on it, as the housing pattern shifts.  Instead of the grids beloved of white North America, the houses on the Six Nations sit at a distance from one another, each in its own piece of land.  Sometimes the land is cultivated, sometimes not.  But is is always there.

My day was packed.  I saw the museum and the art exhibitions at Woodland. The centre's main building is converted from an old Residential School - Canada's equivalent of the Stolen Generation.  Just recently, on an upper floor, a stash of toys has been discovered under the floorboards: marbles, sticks, little hand-made dolls.  They were hidden there because the children in the Residential Schools were not allowed to play.  

I saw a game of lacrosse ("the oldest team sport in the world", I was proudly told - and there was an ancient picture to prove it).  I visited the home of the Mohawk poet Pauline Johnson, who lived in the late 19th / early 20th century.   She visited London, where she was paraded as exotic - although the house was incredibly European in style.  Her father, who knew all the languages of the region as well as English, was an interpreter, and was clearly obsessed with Napoleon.  His daughter was named after the Emperor's sister, Pauline Bonaparte.  Most importantly of all, I visited the Six Nations Polytechnic, and the Indigenous Knowledge Centre, where indigenous ideas are being kept alive, indeed revitalised and validated for the contemporary world.  They've had recent symposia around seeds and cultivation, food science, healing, nursing, language....  it was all very inspiring.

Back at the centre, I was able to sit in on rehearsals for a new play called Salt Baby, which deals with the issue of marrying outside the community.  A really important piece to tour around the reservations.  Rather wonderfully, as I walked into the room, I realised that the director was Yvette Nolan, and one of the actors was Derek Garza - both of whom came to Origins 2009 with Almighty Voice and His Wife

Thinking hard about the day, I headed back to the main site in Toronto for the Festival's evening around Truth and Reconciliation, with the indigenous judge who heads Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Justice Sinclair.  The commission is focused largely on the Residential Schools, although the history of Canada's black population was also brought into the picture, and was a powerful part of the evening.  The judge was very clear that, without truth, there could be no reconciliation: "History is the account we present to ourselves of our collective journey".

The title of this post?  On the Six Nations, there is currently a process of Reciting the Great Law of the Iroquois.  It takes about ten days, including explanations and discussions.  The process is supposed to happen about every five years, but it has in fact been twenty since it was last done, because of internal tensions in the community.  The fact that it is happening now is another re-assertion of indigenous identity, and another part of a healing process.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Planet IndigenUs

Hugely excited to be back in Toronto for the Planet IndigenUs Festival.  Like Origins, this is a festival of indigenous cultures from across the planet - though there are important differences too.  For one thing, this festival happens in a country which has a First Nations population, and so the connections which are made here are to do with those people welcoming their counterparts from overseas, and demonstrating a solidarity with them.  In London, the position is different - we are inviting people from around the world precisely because they have approaches to art and living which are very different from our own.

On a more mundane, but important note, Planet IndigenUs manages to be free, expect for a few ticketed performances.  One of these was Hone Kouka's play I, George Nepia - which pulls off the remarkable feat of being a gentle show about rugby.  Wonderful to see Hone and his company again after the wonderful Tu in Wellington earlier this year.  Wonderful also to reconnect with Pacific Curls, and with Marie and Rita from The Edward Curtis ProjectAnd I've only been here three days....

I got chance to share some of these ideas with Marc Merilainen, the Festival's Artistic Director, in a panel discussion about curating yesterday.  The third person on the panel was Dione Joseph, who is currently working with Big hArt in Australia - so it was another time of rich connections.  Marc had some fascinating questions about what makes an indigenous festival distinctive, how it relates to community and to activism, and what the future of such festivals might be.  All things which exercise my mind on a regular basis.

Still to come is a visit to the Harbourfront's partner venue on the Six Nations Reserve, and Kaha:wi Dance Theatre's collaboration with indigenous performers from Japan (yes - they come from the islands!) - called Susuriwka - Willow Bridge.  That's the show in the picture above.  Looks amazing. 



Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Jack Mapanje and the Olympic powhiri

I had a great time last night interviewing Jack Mapanje, the Malawian poet, before the performance of Kate Stafford's play and Crocodiles are Hungry at Night, which is based on Jack's book of the same name.  The book is a memoir of his time as a political prisoner under Dr. Hastings Banda, Malawi's dictator in the 80s and beyond.  He's been described as "the most important African poet writing in English today", and he's certainly a big draw for African people in London, who came in their droves to hear the talk.  And he's a great talker.  It was very different from the talk with Peter the other week - when I just had to ask one question and off he went for an hour.  Jack, with a combination of erudition and African modesty, answers the questions in a gentle, contemplative rhythm.  At times, I found myself starting another question before he'd quite finished the answer - I had to learn to wait for the last thought to land.  He doesn't hurry his audience: he wants the idea to be full and properly formulated.  Well, he's a poet.

We talked about the experience of prison, and the experience of writing about it, the way in which this can provide some sort of catharsis, and allow you to move beyond the horror.  Jack has not only written about his own imprisonment, he has also edited an anthology of African prison writing, called Gathering Seaweed, after one of the pointless tasks undertaken by prisoners on Robben Island.  The roll-call of the anthologised reads like a Who's Who of African literature and culture over the last century - Mandela, Ngugi, Nkrumah, Biko, Saro-wiwa, Soyinka....  It's very sad that so many countries in Africa should regard self-expression as a crime - and truly it was the only crime committed by Jack and so many others.  Even now, twenty-one years after his release, and with a genuinely democratic and enlightened President of Malawi, Jack feels it would be too dangerous for him to go back.



Today, I got to be part of Olympic fever, and to pay a long-overdue visit to Hinemihi - the beautiful Maori meeting-house in the grounds of Clandon Park, Surrey.  This place, which was a focus in our recent work on Maori heritage, has become the home of the UK Maori, and today was the site for an indigenous welcome, given to the New Zealand Olympic team.  It well and truly got me in the mood for the next stop - Planet IndigenUs....  

Monday, August 06, 2012

A weekend with Africa

Yes, I know there were one or two other things which made this a great weekend, but in between cheering the various gold medals, we managed to squeeze in a couple of amazing events at the Africa Centre, as part of the Africa Salon season which we are curating with them.  On Saturday afternoon, we had a fabulous time with Eugene Skeef (pictured), the great South Africa musician and cultural activist.  The format for this session, called Music and Politics, was similar to the one we created for the opening of last year's Origins: a conversation around a political, cultural or spiritual topic, followed by a piece of music which gives the audience an emotional space to think about what has just been said.  Eugene has led such a rich life, and is such a wonderful raconteur, that the time flew by.  The main focus for much of the conversation was his close involvement with Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness movement in the 1970s - there remains much in Steve's analysis of what was wrong with the apartheid system that applies to our globalised world order....  After 32 years in London, Eugene is planning to return to South Africa soon, precisely because he feels the country now needs its artists, and in particular artists who create a healing space, more than ever.

The role of music in conflict resolution was an important topic in our discussion.  Eugene had brought with him an udu, which is a Nigerian women's instrument, used specifically for the purpose of creating a healing space.  Rather wonderfully, his particular instrument was made in the traditional form by a Zulu cousin of his, and decorated with Zulu designs.  So it is in itself an intercultural artefact.  Eugene's music is wonderful in its interculturality.  It's like listening to the world: you can hear the different cultures, blending together but absolutely retaining their own integrity.


On Sunday afternoon, we joined forces with our old friends at Sandblast Arts to present the UK premiere screening of Tebraa: a film from the Western Sahara, which looks at the lives of ten different Saharawi women, in the occupied territories, the refugee camps, and in exile.  Very excitingly, we were joined by two Saharawi men living in London, one of whom, Sidi, is the UK representative for the Polisario Front, fighting for freedom in this last, totally unknown, Africa colony.  There's more about this conflict here.  Much of the discussion with Sidi after the film was about why this human rights catastrophe is so unknown in the West.  Campaigning organisations, it seems, do not regard it as a priority precisely because it isn't on the news agenda.  The US doesn't take any interest because it depends on a relationship with Morocco, the colonial power, to obtain the precious phosphates which it lacks, and which are under the sands of the Western Sahara.  The academics who advise the US government are often funded by Morocco...  and so it goes on.  As so often, it seems that the only way forward is to empower people on the ground - to follow a grass-roots approach.  It was the Western Sahara that started the Arab Spring - so there is precedent.

One more event to go on Tuesday at 7 - I'll be in conversation with Malawian poet Jack Mapanje.


Wednesday, August 01, 2012

The Africa Salon

Last night Sheelah and I (and Lady Antonia Fraser, plus other luminaries) were at the Press Night of Bilimankhwe Arts' new production at the Africa Centre: And Crocodiles are Hungry at Night.  Bilimakhwe share our Wood Green office, and Kate Stafford produced Dilemma of a Ghost for us, so we know quite a lot about this show!  Kate, who lived in Malawi for a time, set up the co-producing organisation, Nanzikambe Arts.  She's brought over no fewer than nine of their performers to tell this story from their own recent history.  No wonder the whole thing has been six years in the planning.  What's more, the book on which it's based, the prison memoir of Jack Mapanje (pictured above) took a full 20 years to write.  So this is a real labour of love - and a story that needs to be told.  Antonia Fraser was there because she and Harold Pinter were among the British writers who campaigned through PEN for Jack's release.  In many ways, this was the story that put Malawi into international consciousness - and so all the more reason for it to be re-visited.

The show is part of the Africa Salon, which we are curating with the Africa Centre over the next couple of weeks.  The season kicked off a couple of weeks back with Peter's inspiring talk.  Next up on Saturday afternoon is an event called Music and Politics with Eugene Skeef - pictured above with Peter and Leeto Thale at the talk.  Eugene  is a South African percussionist, composer, poet, educationalist and animator.  During the apartheid era he was an activist in the Black Consciousness movement with Steve Biko, and co-led a nation-wide literacy campaign teaching in schools, colleges and communities across South Africa. He moved to London in 1980. 
Click here to book.

On Sunday afternoon, we'll be teaming up with Sandblast Arts to present the UK premiere screening of  Tebraa, a new film about women from the Western Sahara.  Tebraa refers to poetry specifically associated with Saharawi women that reflect intimate themes relating to love and sorrow. The documentary shows the work of fourteen Andalusian filmmakers who portray eleven Saharawi women and young girls. They are stories of women who have been denied their fundamental right to a homeland. Whether based in the Sahrawi refugee camps, in exile in Spain or living under Moroccan occupation in Western Sahara, they all express a wish to come back some day to the country that was taken from them in 1975.  Followed by a discussion with Saharawi people, now living in exile in London.
Click here to book.  

As if all that wasn't enough, I'll be doing a pre-show conversation with Jack Mapanje on Tuesday night, 7th August, at 7pm, prior to the performance of Crocodiles.  Never mind the Olympics with all those empty seats and match-fixing scandals....  this is the place to be!