One of my research interests is in the genre of drama that journalist Lindsay Johns has pejoratively termed ‘Theatre of the Ghetto‘. This genre, according to Johns, is primarily ‘about guns, drugs and council estates’ and regularly depicts black people (particularly men) as inhabitants of unsavoury or troubled home environments and as the perpetrators or victims of crime.
‘Theatre of the Ghetto’, I would add, usually adheres to the conventions of social realism – where working class spaces are depicted with a close attention to detail in the set design, costume and staging. Plays that might fit into this category include Random* (debbie tucker green 2008 Royal Court), Off the Endz (Bola Agbaje 2010 Royal Court), The Westbridge (Rachel De-lahay 2011 Royal Court) and Estate Walls (Arinze Kene 2011 Ovalhouse).
It is easy to see why Johns is dissatisfied with the state of contemporary black British theatre, which again and again presents stereotypes of young black men, which reinforce racist conceptions of black masculinity that already circulate in the dominant culture. In many of the post-show talks and Q&As that I have attended after theatre (and indeed film) of the ‘ghetto’ events the question asked by audience members is: ‘what can we do about our young black men?’ Audiences (both black and white) appear to receive these works as truthful reflections of the total state of the young black British community, and respond by seeking methods to ‘fix’ the youth.
I think audiences are asking the wrong question – what we should be asking, especially in this period where the rise of the far right throughout Europe threatens to create and entrench divisions between racial and religious groups, is: ‘what can we do about racism?’ What can we do about racism, which operates to demonise groups of the population and which is so pervasive that it works through cultural intuitions such as theatre to reinforce its dangerous message?
Accusing mainstream theatres of racism is ethically complex, not least because most of the plays that fit the ‘Theatre of the Ghetto’ mould are written by black writers, often claiming to reflect the ‘reality’ of the life of the black British community. And, after all, what right does a white woman such as me have to tell these writers what kind of theatre they should and shouldn’t be making? (Another good question.)
But of course – as is hardly ever publically acknowledged, particularly at the Royal Court, which emphasises the primacy of the playwright – plays have more than one author. The producers, directors, set designers and centrally, the funders of theatre also contribute to the overall meaning created by productions, and importantly, decide what gets made, and how.
What can we do about a system where, as playwright Arinze Kene has argued, black British playwrights are coerced into writing ‘the same old shit’, in the knowledge that these are the stories theatres want to stage?
Happily, there does seem to be a fledgling move towards mainstream theatres asking questions about the stories they produce. Over the past couple of years I have come across two especially powerful productions that place racism at the centre of the story, questioning ‘norms’ of the theatre industry in different ways.
The first is Nathaniel Martello-White’s play Blackta (Young Vic 2012), which explores the place of the black actor in the contemporary theatre industry. Blackta calls attention to the pressures young black men feel to live up to stereotypes of extreme masculinity – ‘homophobic, misogynistic, tough’ – and examines how the acting industry exploits and reinforces conventional depictions of black men.
The second is Arinze Kene’s God’s Property (Soho 2013), which subverts conventional ‘Theatre of the Ghetto’ narratives, which often position black men as recidivist criminals. At the end of the play, the mixed-race Chima who has served a long prison sentence for the murder of his white girlfriend, Poppy, is revealed not to have killed her at all – he has covered for Poppy’s father, who killed her accidently, trying to attack Chima after becoming enraged that his daughter was carrying a black man’s baby.
Both of these examples mark an important, I think, way in which the theatre industry is starting to interrogate its own practices. Although, depressingly, after a showing of God’s Property at the Albany in Deptford, audiences were still asking, ‘what should we do about our young black men?’ A question which conveniently shifts the gaze away from those in power, who might be able to actually do something about the social problems caused by racial and economic inequality.
*although the unconventional staging of this play (on a sparse stage, a single black actress plays all the characters) means it isn’t really ‘social realism’.
With thanks to Charlotte Bell at Queen Mary University, whose question on my paper at the Seeing Like a City symposium prompted this blog.
If you’re interested in reading more of my thoughts on realism and the ethics of representation you might like to read articles I have written (and co-written) on the subject: here and here.
For the past five and half years, I have been undertaking research examining the representation of council estates (or social housing estates) across a number of divergent theatre practices (mainstream, applied and site-specific). In September 2013 I attended a fascinating event, run by artist Jordan McKenzie as part of the Live Art Development Agency’s DIY Series. This event, titled ‘Look at the E(s)tate We’re in’, was a gathering of artists, academics and activists whose work engaged with council estate sites. Below I have posted my review of this event, originally published on Interface.
‘Council estates are iconic sites of urban deprivation. In contemporary popular representations – on film, television and in the newspaper press – estates are often called upon to symbolise poverty, crime and struggle. Council estates are also regularly implicated in political rhetoric regarding the welfare state. For example, when the coalition government recently introduced the ‘spare bedroom tax’, a reduction in housing benefit for any claimants who were deemed to have a ‘spare bedroom’, they invoked the concept of the ‘shirker’ or ‘scrounger’ – the lazy, benefit dependant council estate resident that they had used to justify wider benefit cuts.
Because of the national interest in council estate sites, and because they are often presumed to house communities of social renters who are vulnerable and economically marginalised – despite the fact that, in reality, estates are home to a diverse range of residents including professionals, homeowners, artists and private renters – council estates have become fertile sites for socially engaged arts practices.
Look At The E(s)tate We’re In (LATEWI) was a three day mini summit for five artists whose work centres around socially engaged practice, funded by the Live Art Development Agency as part of their DIY series – where artists run unusual training and development workshops for other artists. I attended the summit for research purposes – I am currently undertaking a PhD that interrogates representations of the council estate. The event was hosted by Jordan McKenzie, an artist and estate resident who ran LUPA (Lock-Up Performance Art), a series of live art works staged in a garage on the Approach Estate in Bethnal Green, where he lives, and where the summit took place.
LATEWI sought to address the following questions: Does working locally and employing notions of localism in artistic processes provide an oppositional critique of globalisation or foster insular and conservative attitudes to artistic and social exchange? Is the notion of community important given the attacks on estates by the government or does it fail to represent the particular and autonomous nature of social relations? How do artists create ‘authentic’ relations in terms of social engagement without it seeming that an artist parachutes in to perform it and then leave again effectively reducing it to another artistic practice? What indeed do we mean by authentic in this context?
Over the three days attendees engaged in a series of micro-encounters. These included talks by prominent artists and academics concerned with participatory arts practices – such as Bobby Lloyd whose recent projects include ‘the drawing shed’, an arts organisation that uses mobile studios to create arts projects on two housing estates in E17, and Dr Nic Ridout who offered a provocation on the powers of spectatorship, arguing that participation might, sometimes, work as a substitute for taking part in political action. Artists were also invited to engage with estate residents, in a series of one-to-one meetings, where residents spoke about their own experiences of the estate and the surrounding area, and which might provoke stimulus for future collaborations.
The summit also allowed space for the attending artists to reflect on their own work and a chance to share and discuss practice. This fostered stimulating and memorable conversations, particularly around the notion of rights to representation and the ethics of socially engaged art. We asked whether and how arts practitioners should work with communities they are not part of, and speculated on the role of the social artist in a neoliberal economy – where artists are often employed by institutions on a short term basis, and expected to carry out social and political work that they are not necessarily trained for.
The scope and breadth of work discussed over the three days led us to consider whether council estate practice might be considered a category of socially engaged art in its own right. Although artistic engagements with council estates have happened since at least the mid twentieth century, we speculated that the proliferation of council estate art in the past ten years might mark a definable historical moment in socially engaged work.
LATEWI felt like the start of something, it was a timely and exciting event – a spark that might ignite future practices, collaborations and discourses. It was a useful space for reflection and creativity, and proved the worth of the DIY initiative in providing unique and stimulating spaces for artists to explore ideas in a way that offers potential for innovation.’