The Salon, Meshac Gaba’s Contemporary African Museum of Art, Tate Modern

A couple of months ago I found myself sitting in the Salon of Meshac Gaba’s Museum of Contemporary African Art exhibit at Tate Modern.

I was very grateful that the room had a sofa I could sit on. I’d been up all night
over-writing and unnecessarily budgeting a project proposal for a three-hour interview process.

I’d stayed the night at a very cushy 5-star hotel just over the Millennium Bridge in front of St. Paul’s, thanks to my mother and youngest sister and‘s Top Secret Hotels.  The interview was a five-minute walk from Mile End Station, only four stops away on the Central Line.  I still managed to almost be late. I walked in on the dot of my interview start time, flustered. That set the tone for day: I felt and acted rushed. No surprise to me I didn’t get the job. I knew I hadn’t by the end of the interview. And I was sure, perversely, it was because I had tried very hard and wanted it very much.

I tried to get back to Euston before peak travel started, but hadn’t realised it started at three.  So I came back to St. Paul’s for an hour-long visit to my true Holy of Holies across the river – the Tate Modern.

I try to make a pilgrimage every time I come down to London.  And it works every time.


Architecture Room, Meshac Gaba’s Museum of Contemporary Art

I was exhausted and disappointed when I entered the building, and sceptical of Meshac Gaba’s exhibition – a series of conceptual works arranged into a travelling museum.  I was a bit too tired for “conceptual” –or so I thought.  So I walked through dutifully to the last room , and sat down.  And I did what I always do when upset: I wrote. This:

“As I’ve written this, the sounds in the Salon Room –  of a little blond girl in white long-sleeved top and jeans playing a white baby’s rand decorated with the artist’s “trademark” small round colourful dots hole-punched from decommissioned banknotes, the African music from a bar against a wall, the teenage girls on the couch next to me chatting and giggling quietly, people violently sliding the wooden tiles of the flag game tables  –  all these have done the trick.  My nascent headache retreats.  I disappear.  I meld.  I watch people glide along the Millennium Bridge through the floor-to-ceiling windows, stacked like five ladders in the wall opposite.

And I get it.  The room works as art, though I couldn’t tell you why.  It just does.

I love this place.”


     Schama and Aviva

       Schama and Aviva

     “I am going to The Paradise Garden one day.”  —  Simon Schama’s mother, as quoted by Simon Schama in episode two of The Story of the Jews, BBC2, September 2013

Watching Simon Schama go through the history of the Jewish people is a privilege.  I want to add, “and a delight”, but this doesn’t do justice to the complexity of emotions the programme provokes in me.  I do delight in it, in Schama’s upfront pride in his folks. 

I love warmth of his affirmation of his identity.  Simply love it.  I want my mixed-heritage British and American nephews, and my African-American nieces – and my white working class British nephew and niece – to take that kind of joy in self-affirmation. Celebration.  Understanding.  Most of all, compassion, and clear-eyed love.  Real love is critical, in the sense of seeing all the flaws in the beloved and pointing each out in the most unflattering way.  And yet staying in love.

Schama’s at his compassionate best when explaining the story of Josephus, the Jewish historian who started out fighting with his people against Rome roughly 70 years after the death of Christ.  His side lost.  The Romans destroyed the Temple, the heart of the faith, and drove the Jews into exile from their home – the starting point for the Diaspora that continued for two thousand years.

But when his side lost so catastrophically, Josephus became one of the spoils of war.  A captive.  A prisoner.  A slave.  But he didn’t disappear into defeat.  He joined the enemy, becoming house historian for the Emperor Vespasian. A turncoat.  A collaborator.  The kind of person despised by all sides.  The losers – his own folks – would only see someone serving the man who destroyed their world.  The winners would see someone who betrayed his own people, a man who’s lost his sense of honour. 

Schama shows a different side of Josephus.  When the Romans dismiss the Jews as virtually worthless in terms of culture and history, Josephus stands up and sets the record straight in a long, loving account of his people and past, their art, their music, their faith.  Just like Schama does in this series. 

Why am I talking about this telly series in my theatre blog?  Because I think growing up black in Washington, D.C., a city whose population is 70% black, has given me that same solid joy in my identity.  If you grow up in a place where the mayor is black, the police chief is black, your doctor is black, your teacher is black, your lawyer is black – you never begin to believe that there is anything in this world wrong with being black.  You know there are people with a problem called prejudice, but that is their problem, not yours. And you know how to make them sorry if they try to give you a problem.  You’re not scared to do that.  Because on the playground, there’s loads of other folk who have got your back.  I went to a Catholic, fee-paying school, one-third black, one-third Italian, one-third Irish.  And because I came from D.C., I never believed we were a minority – until I went to live in Colorado.

That was all long ago, and far, far away.  But part of what I do in the theatre – even when all my cast is white, and the writer is white, and the theatre in which the production takes place is basically white, with a white audience – part of why I choose the plays and writers I do, is that I am always looking for the voice of the ones who don’t recognise that they are minorities.  Or feel disadvantaged.  Who aren’t afraid to paint themselves and their own folk, and the folk they come across in their lives, with clear eyes.  Who don’t blink at reality, or retreat into a Rattigan-dream of a world that never was.  Just because the times are tough, doesn’t mean we can’t have joy talking about it.  The joy is in the telling.  How we got over.  How we survived. Building the Paradise Garden, here and now.

When I was explaining to my trainee crew how the last play I directed should work, I compared it to putting together a film.  The play, Heart’s Core, was made with refugee women, put together from their stories, folk tales, and dreams.

What I said:

It will work like a film montage:  juxtaposition creates the narrative.  It will loosely tell a story, after fitting together all the women’s stories.  Group bits as if they were scenes in one story, through montage.

Purpose – to create a live performance experience more intense than a film. Because most films are more intensely felt by the audience than plays.  It’s the immersive qualities of film:  surround sound in Dolby digital.  Faces larger than life, so that the brain is fooled into thinking this face must be physically close to you, to loom so large.

Theatre is physically close to the audience, especially studio shows.  Immersive theatre is closest of all.  The actors are right next to the audience, standing closely enough to touch.  The action might be flowing all around them, it can touch them, overwhelm them physically, take control, blindfold them, lead them sightless into the night.  Rather than merely sympathise with a character, the audience could become the character, collectively.  The audience must answer the call to adventure, take the challenge, make the choices, live the consequences.  They have to feel at risk.  The ultimate thrill-ride:  a rollercoaster for the soul.

Do it right, do it well, and they’ll remember forever.

N.B.:  Comments temporarily closed, due to Japanese spamming. For real.

Question:  Rollercoasters.  When people say a show or film is a Rollercoaster ride, most of the time they mean it’s spills and thrills and chills, but in a superficial, intellectually shallow way.  Lots of plot but no emotionally satisfying story.  Lots of showy tics but no rounded character.

But think about the physical and emotional intensity of riding a real-world rollercoaster.  When you get the chance, you ride it again and again and again.

Why not make theatre like that?  But with content.  Intellectually challenging.  Emotionally intense.  Satisfying story.  Characters so real you know where you’ve met them before. Spills and chills and thrills.  Up close and personal.  Why not?

That’s what I want to share in this blog:   what I’m thinking and doing while I try to make that kind of theatre.

Maybe the only sin in the theatre is to bore people.