Monday, March 30, 2020

THE GREAT EXPERIMENT at the Cutty Sark - guest blog by Roshni Mooneeram

THE GREAT EXPERIMENT - Nisha Dassyne, Tony Guilfoyle & David Furlong.  Photo by John Cobb
I lived Border Crossings’ THE GREAT EXPERIMENT at the Cutty Sark in London with my hand on my heart for most of the play. I say ‘lived’ as opposed to ‘watched’, ‘attended’, ‘experienced’ because it was a Border Crossings signature piece in aesthetics and discomfort in equal measures that stirred intense emotions throughout. First of all, walking through Cutty Sark was in itself a powerful experience taking us into the very entrails of history. The walk served as an ablution ritual before entering the open space of an idol-less temple, and Border Crossings does this with finesse and rupture. There is no idol. There are conflicting voices, anachronistic self-consciousness, across the stories of the Great Experiment and its ongoing sequels. Affinities and collisions stemming from colonial dynamics emerge crossing time and space, at times speaking their truths passionately, at others allowing their biases and untruths to explode violently in the face of the audience.

The timing for this play to tour the UK and the Global South is perfect. Since the 2010 Equality Act and post-Brexit, we now have a vocabulary and a new freedom to name, address and redress white privilege. In my consultancy work in Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) much of the resistance to EDI stems from people who have little sense of the historical context to ongoing institutional systemic racism and its multifaceted impact on Black and Asian Minority Ethnic groups. THE GREAT EXPERIMENT addresses, both brutally and in deeply touching human ways, those holes in the collective memory, and, in turn, the holes that this vacuum has dug into our souls on both sides of the equation. The colonial history of Britain has never been more relevant today as the momentum kick started by David Lammy manifests itself into EDI programmes and frameworks across institutions. The University of Glasgow is leading the way in its public acknowledgment of the slavery related profits that the University has benefited from. It has embarked on a programme of reparative justice which includes an ongoing partnership with the University of the West Indies. THE GREAT EXPERIMENT reminds us why we must imperatively do more.
THE GREAT EXPERIMENT.  Tony Guilfoyle & Tobi King Bakare.  Photo by John Cobb
This play will rustle different feathers in postcolonial contexts such as Mauritius where the original colonial structures in terms of land ownership and economic power remain almost intact. The play begs the all-important question of how and why, in this day and age, those who have built their fortunes on slavery in Mauritius are allowed to remain silent over an acknowledgment of the travesty of the past and reparative measures for the future. Secondly, colonial mimicry is at its best and remains consistent through the two political families which have reigned for more than half a century. Descendants of indentured labourers and slaves quibble over legitimacy, over who poured more blood and sweat over the land, over who is more deserving. I have tried through deliberately provocative press articles, to address the schism between the descendants of slaves and the descendants of indentured labourers in Mauritius. I have failed for a number of reasons including the fact that, as the play makes clear, our historical roots are the biggest taboo. Our survival strategies remain volatile, painful and raw and cannot accommodate any questioning let alone criticism. THE GREAT EXPERIMENT sits precisely in that uncomfortable place between what we ought to remember but have forgotten, and the convenient stories of identities that we have invented to suit our own purposes. Stories concocted in postcolonial times around discourses of supremacy and purity (akin to colonial ones) that we have started to believe as absolute truths and which in turn force others to forget.

The Mauritian state glorifies the Aapravasi Ghat where indentured labourers landed, and leaves a deliberate hole next to it where the Museum of slavery should stand. THE GREAT EXPERIMENT reminds us that it is not the Aapravasi Ghat that is laughing. It is the colonial project that is laughing at its unimagined perennial success to divide and rule. The play is bold, almost brash, in its intention to touch us where it hurts the most, not for the sake of it, but to allow us to confront our self-perceptions and our perceptions of otherness. Dragging us to the hold of the Cutty Sark, through the dark pages of British history and its sequels, in spite of everything that we wish to know and not know about ourselves, THE GREAT EXPERIMENT somehow manages to elevate its audience, in the way that only art can.

Roshni Mooneeram
Equality, Diversity, Inclusion Consultant
University of Nottingham.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

I Saw the End of the World

The Seven Streams of the River Ota
It seems horribly appropriate that the last piece of theatre I saw before the country went into lockdown was Robert Lepage's The Seven Streams of the River Ota. The play is overwhelmingly concerned with 'apocalyptic' catastrophes - the Hiroshima bomb, the Shoah, the AIDS epidemic. In the Lyttleton auditorium, for a sell-out theatrical occasion, there were empty seats all around.  Walking through Central London on a Saturday night, the streets were eerily deserted. Even the Gents loo was a markedly changed space, with orderly queues forming as men meticulously washed their hands.

I had seen the play twice before: once in a very early version, which concentrated largely on Jana Capek and her experiences in the Terezin camp; and then in the first full version of the mid 1990s. It was a significant, formative experience for me: I was fascinated by the global reach and epic scale of a piece that was also, in many ways, like a soap opera, and thrilled by its technical panache and daring theatricality. Lepage's great skill has always been the theatrical magic of transformation - by turning something into something else, he suggests all kinds of links between narrative moments and characters' experiences, frequently leaping across time and space. It was wonderful to revisit the stunning moment when a silhouette of a Japanese doll transforms into the living woman who gave the doll to her American lover as a present for his child - the meaning of the gift for the man becomes movingly present in the performer's body.

Perhaps it was because the production was so theatrically thrilling that I hadn't been quite so aware in the 90s of its deep preoccupation with cataclysmic events, or perhaps it was because the current context made the content so much more intense than the form? Looking over the published text, I realised that Lepage and his collaborators had made a number of alterations to the piece, and these also shifted the balance of the play. In the 90s, the director and company (and this spectator) were significantly younger, and there was a great sense of youthful energy in the play, resisting the potential for the events portrayed to provoke a nihilistic response. I remember hearing Lepage talk about the inspiration for the play being a visit he made to Hiroshima, where he had expected to find a city dominated by tragedy, and instead discovered vitality, creativity, energy. The 1996 text begins with a Prologue by the older Jana, which makes the same point: "If Hiroshima is a city of death and destruction, it is also a city of rebirth and survival." The current version begins instead with the figure of the child Hanako, blinded by the atomic bomb, and her elder self speaking far more portentous lines, which recur later in the show: "I saw the end of the world." So I don't think it was just me or the coronavirus - I think there was a real shift in the emphasis of the play.

I suppose this might be partly to do with the recent criticisms Lepage has received around issues of cultural appropriation. The cases of SLAV and Kanata have been much discussed - and I have written elsewhere about the question of representation in Ota.  Here's an extract from my Module on Post-Colonial Theatre for Rose Bruford College:
The issues around multi-lingualism in this play relate closely to the fact that it was created with international touring in mind, and so reflect the possibility of diverse audiences. Much of the play is about the business of being an audience, the act of looking. There’s one truly extraordinary moment at the end of the section about the older Jana looking at her own memories of Terezin, when “the lights switch so that the audience can see its own reflection in the downstage mirrors”. In an instant, our spectatorship of the event is foregrounded as a crucial part of the event’s meaning.
Yet, the question surely arises, who are ‘we’? With the exception of Jana, who is only the spectator figure in this one section, when she is also the object of the gaze as her younger self; the spectator figures in Ota tend to be Québécois. What’s more, Québécois on their travels. These figures, (e.g. Patricia, Walter, Sophie, Pierre) are observers, through whom we approach the Otherness of other cultures, whether this be Japan (as, for example, when Pierre, and the audience, watch Hanako’s demonstration of butoh) or Terezin (when Patricia interviews Jana).
This Québécois mediation is perhaps to be expected from a Québécois company – even the actress performing Hanako was Québécoise – but it suggests an assumption of audience viewpoint. In Québec, the play would probably have felt like a meditation on bi-lingual Québécois culture in the context of globalisation. Indeed, in his film , Lepage reworks sections of the play alongside a narrative about the referendum on Québec’s proposed secession from the rest of Canada. This audience would, crucially, have understood all the passages in both French and English. There would therefore be no sense of any of the North American or Western European characters as Other: that status is reserved for the Czechs and the Japanese. To other Canadian audiences, however, the French passages would have been more obscure, having the effect of making the play a statement about the Québécois culture as itself Other to them. It’s the Québécois audience that would have related most fully to the way French becomes a langue-identité in the play.
For a European audience (and, as the list of tour dates in the front of the printed script suggests, most of the audiences were European), the play’s effect would be different again. European languages and theatre forms are the main route in to the play, so this audience also feels close to the Québécois tourist characters. For them, however, the specific Canadian resonance of their bi-lingualism is not so important (or, perhaps, even apparent). The use of French simply becomes another part of the play’s post-modern engagement with the global village, another site for the audience’s essential process of translation (of which much is made in the play).
The one audience which would, I feel, have responded very differently to the play is the Japanese one: the only audience for this ‘global’ project which was not from the Western hemisphere (though, like all the rest, it was from the Northern hemisphere). Japanese culture is presented in the play through the mediating gaze of the Québécois tourists (and the American soldier Luke). This is, in many ways, a commendable thing for Lepage to have done: he hasn’t presumed to know Japanese culture from inside. But this makes it all the odder to present the finished work to an audience who do know the culture, because they live it. To see oneself presented as Other must be strange indeed.
The 2020 version of the play has certainly taken on board much of the criticism around casting: the Japanese characters are now played by actors with East Asian heritage, and Hanako's appearance at the start of the play makes for a stark contrast with the European mediation offered by Jana's Prologue. The opening speech being given to this blind Japanese woman had the effect of distancing the audience from the material, rather than drawing them in. This was actually very powerful, as the subsequent sequence around the American soldier Luke and his slowly developing love for Hanako's mother Nozomi is an example of a Western character leading the audience into a relationship with a Japanese Other, and that was constantly offset by our ongoing awareness of Hanako's prologue. So I found it all the stranger that the order of the Parts had been altered, so that the adult Hanako was first encountered as a translator for Québécois visitors to Japan, rather than (as in the 1996 version) as a compassionate presence at the assisted suicide of her half-brother. This made her ancillary to the Québécois characters, rather than a powerful presence with her own agency.

I suspect this change of order reflects another aspect of the artists' shift over a quarter century, which is a more circumspect approach to sexuality. In the original structure, the French farce on tour in Japan and its parallels in the lives of performers and diplomats came quite late on, with the play acquiring a more comic tone as it rushed towards a climactic celebration of life and zest, particularly in the Québécois dancer Pierre's sexual liaisons with both Hanako and her son David. In the 2020 version, which reflects a post-#MeToo mentality, David has disappeared as a character, and the sexual element in Pierre's encounter with Hanako is hugely downplayed in comparison with their artistic relationship. The seedy diplomat Walter no longer seems a figure of fun after Weinstein, and the weirdly erotic Japanese puppet play, which was theatrically extraordinary in 1996, has completely disappeared. I guess it was problematic both in terms of racial and sexual politics - but I still rather missed it.

Without the growing sexual energy of the latter sections, the seven-hour play seemed less resolved than in 1996 - and maybe that also reflects the uncertainty of the current moment. The play still ends with a Québécois artist making work that attempts to bring many cultural strands together: all of Lepage's pieces seem to end in this way, even Kanata, but it no longer seems to carry the conviction that creativity is the answer to everything. The new Ota is rightly aware of our current moment as a time of disturbance and deep uncertainty.

We left the theatre, and locked ourselves into our homes. When we emerge again, there will be huge questions around how we can meet and gather in our theatres, our polities, our globalised space.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Migrants and ‘Traffickers’ - past and present

Guest blog by Prof. Crispin Bates (University of Edinburgh)
David Furlong in rehearsals for THE GREAT EXPERIMENT
Crispin Bates was one of our Consultant Historians for the devising process of our new production: THE GREAT EXPERIMENT.  Here he reflects on the history of migrations informing the play, and its relevance today.

The problems associated with today's mass migrations are nothing new. They have always arisen from the incompetent or misguided policies of governments that have often been responsible for creating the conditions from which migrants are trying to escape. In the current European refugee crisis an attempt is commonly made to distinguish between ‘deserving’ refugees, to whom asylum should be granted, and ‘economic migrants’ who should be excluded. However the distinction is not so clear- cut. So-called ‘economic migrants’ are often the victims of mis-rule by totalitarian regimes. Their poverty is therefore brought about or compounded by the actions of politicians. Persecution can involve political and economic discrimination as well as the loss of civil liberties. The chaos of war produces famine and economic distress that is as much a threat to life as the military’s guns and bombs.

Perhaps the most extreme form of political repression arises when a country is occupied by a foreign power. This describes the condition of many countries in Africa and Asia during the era of European colonialism. Political rights and civil liberties were minimal, and territories were administered primarily in the interests of the occupying power, and not those of the indigenous population. The question arises therefore whether labour migrants of the colonial era were maximising their economic opportunities, or were simply refugees. The answer, as today, is often both. Migrants made choices, but only amongst a very limited range of options. One might question the freedom of choice when it comes to most economies, but in these circumstances the range of options was often peculiarly constrained.

Global migration has a longer history than most people imagine. Apart from the millions of Europeans who migrated to America and other countries in the hope of a better life, some 20 million Chinese migrated overseas between 1840 and 1940. Mostly they went to Malaysia, where they worked in the tin mining industry, to the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), Siam, French Indo-China, and South Africa, where they were employed in gold mining.  Indians migrated overseas in equally large numbers from the 1830s onwards.  And wherever Asian workers went they were soon followed by merchants, who traded, set up shops and restaurants and small scale industries. Many of these migrants came from regions with traditionally high levels of out-migration, such as Bihar in northern India, as well as from Tamil Nadu in the south, but eventually every part of the Indian subcontinent became involved. They mostly left to work in sugar plantations in British colonies in the Caribbean and southern Indian Ocean, as well as in South Africa, Fiji, and in the French colonies of Reunion, Guadeloupe and Martinique. Their role was to replace African slave labour following the abolition of slavery in the British empire in 1833/4 and the French empire a decade later. Indian labourers signed up in even larger numbers to work in the paddy fields, coffee, tea and rubber plantations of Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Malaysia. They also served as construction workers, much as they do in the Middle East in the present day. They were often employed using notoriously one-sided labour contracts which obliged them to work continuously for three, four or five years for a single employer, who was thereby reimbursed for the cost of their passage. They had no passports to be confiscated, only an emigration certificate and a contract of employment, but if they did not complete their contract, they would lose the right to a free passage home.

Criticisms from the Anti-Slavery Society in London, who dubbed the first wave of indentured migration ‘a new system of slavery’, led to the suspension of indentured migration in 1838, but it was then resumed in 1843 under close supervision. Opponents of Indian overseas migration within India were reassured by the planters that they would only recruit the poorest of the poor and the most unskilled of Indian workers. However, statistical evidence suggests that by the late 1850s migrants were being recruited from amongst the landless and impoverished within all sections of society. The great Indian Uprising of 1857 gave a boost to the trade, as the economy of rural north India was devastated by war with successive famines following in 1861 and 1865. Tens of thousands of high caste Indians from disbanded regiments of the Bengal army, in particular, found themselves out of work at this time and many migrated overseas. It is true that the wages of indentured labourers were often better than those available locally. However, the alternative employment opportunities were severely limited.
Tobi King Bakare in rehearsals for THE GREAT EXPERIMENT
The indenture contract was similar to that in use in most modern armies. It was less onerous in one respect, as if they saved enough the workers could buy themselves out of the contract at any time. However, the work was hard and although hospitals were provided and Protectors and Inspectors were appointed (to whom they could and did complain), the rights of workers were limited, and always constrained by the pervasive racism of their employers and colonial governments. If workers fled from the plantation they could be arrested and imprisoned for vagrancy (a law borrowed from Britain), and workers who were absent from work, without permission, were in some colonies penalised with a two-day deduction of wages for every day they were away (the notorious ‘double cut’). Although banned by law by the end of the century, overseers in some estates often did not hesitate to use violence and abuse to keep their workers in line.

Like most long-distance migrants, the Indian recruits (referred to as ‘coolies’ – a title that later assumed a derogatory meaning) had only a limited knowledge of where they were going. There were sugar plantations in India, and some were already familiar with the type of work involved. But most had no relevant previous experience. What attracted them was the possibility of saving money and returning home with it. In some cases by migration they also hoped to escape caste, gender, or religious persecution. Better still, many were allowed to acquire land – something they could never have achieved in India - and stayed on in the sugar colonies. In the British colony of Trinidad, the earliest migrants were offered a free grant of land if they agreed to stay rather than claim the free passage home to which they were entitled. In time, many gave up working on the plantations and became farmers or shopkeepers.

Between 1.5 and 2 million Indians were contracted as indentured workers. Eventually large settled communities of Indian workers were established in the sugar colonies, which by the early twentieth century was to make this form of recruitment redundant. Other forms of recruitment also took place contemporaneously for the inter-Asian labour trade. These included the so-called ‘free migration’ of workers and the use of Indian kanganies and maistries who advanced wages and lent money to workers to pay their passage. Workers were assembled in gangs to work especially in the coffee and tea plantations of Assam and Sri Lanka, and later in the all important rubber plantations of Malaysia. Unlike the migration of indentured labourers to work in the sugar trade, this form of migration was not closely supervised by colonial governments. We will therefore never know the true numbers, but many millions were involved. Migration to work in sugar plantations probably accounted in fact for barely 10% of the total.

In all these migrations there was an opportunity for betterment, but at huge risk and often at great cost. Prior to the introduction of steamships, disease might break out on ships during the long sea passage, leading to extraordinary levels of mortality. Some were also lost in drownings at sea and shipwrecks. The treatment meted out to workers by former slave owners in the early years was often harsh. Gradually though, over time, conditions were improved with the introduction of improved rations and increasingly rigorous inspections. The complaints and protests of the workers, who struggled against colonial discrimination, played an important role in ameliorating the trade: so much so that the Internal Labour Organisation in the 1920s looked to indentured labour regulations for examples on how to define the rights of workers.  Much as in the present day, the least fortunate migrants were those who found themselves working in entirely unregulated industries, such as agriculture or domestic work.
Nisha Dassyne in rehearsals for THE GREAT EXPERIMENT
It is often assumed that planters and factory owners were themselves responsible for recruiting the workers. However, intermediaries of various sorts played a crucial role in all Indian overseas labour migration. The most important of these intermediaries was the kangani or sirdar: who was commonly a returnee migrant worker or overseer, who could provide knowledge and information about the passage, guarantee their safe arrival, and their onward employment. Much like modern people smugglers (often referred to as ‘traffickers’), they were pilloried at the time. They provided a service to the planters by securing for them employees, usually from the Indian rural locality where they originated, that the planters could not otherwise secure. They had to be paid for this, and often demanded extortionate fees. At the same time, they organised and supported the workers: navigating their way to the depot, providing them food and clothing during the passage, lending money (at high rates of interest), and securing the best possible wages for them if they chose to re-indenture on the sugar estate (in which they also claimed a share). They were indispensable to all concerned, but their loyalties were always in question.

Attempts were made by numerous colonial governments to do away with the kanganis, sirdars and other intermediaries to develop what they imagined as an entirely ‘free’ market in labour migrants. This proved to be impossible, even after the abandonment of the indentured labour contract in the 1920s under pressure from Indian nationalists. Much like people smugglers in the present-day they provided a service which no-one else could. To survive and improve their life chances, migrants had to undertake long journeys and depended upon the networks and knowledge provided by intermediaries. Even though colonial labour migration was not illegal, contracts could not be secured without the involvement of intermediaries.

In the present-day, the growth of free trade has been accompanied by an ever greater tightening of border controls. This began in the 1880s with immigration restrictions introduced by Canada and Australia to halt the inward rush of impoverished Chinese migrant labourers. Travel restrictions became more widespread in the 1930s with the impact of the depression, with the eruption of strikes and race riots being often blamed on migrant communities. Border controls then became endemic after World War II, as newly independent social democratic states struggled to define and control their citizens, to raise taxes, and to determine the legal rights of their populations. It is these restrictions, that have made intermediaries of various sorts even more important than they were in the past for those seeking and needing to cross the globe in search of sanctuary and employment.

In the parts of the Middle East and north Africa torn apart by warfare and civil strife there are no consulates where refugees can apply for asylum. At the same time, European air, sea and road transport regulations forbid any migrant to board a plane without a visa of some sort. Smuggling is thus driven by EU policy. Many politicians have pointed out how the foreign policies of the European powers, particularly the arming of rebels in the aftermath of the ‘Arab Spring’ and the bombing of Libya, Iraq and Syria, have contributed to the exodus. Nineteenth century colonialism limited the opportunities of Indian subjects so that they had little choice but to become indentured migrants, for which they were recruited by Indian sirdars. So too, have European governments compounded a state of war and then created a legal regime where would- be migrants have no choice but to put themselves in hands of smugglers, who are the only ones capable of organising their escape.

In colonial times, the Royal Commission on Indentured Migration to Mauritius in 1875, received conflicting evidence of the exploitative behaviour of sirdars: sometimes they seemed to serve the interests only of themselves, but at other times they clearly defended their gangs of workers. Neither the workers or planters could survive without them. The Royal Commission concluded there they were an ‘evil’ (hypocritically blamed on ‘the persistence of native practices’) than must be endured.8 Just as there were ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sirdars in colonial times, the same can be said of intermediaries in the present: at the one end there are legitimate and responsible foreign labour recruiters and at the other end are the ‘traffickers’ who use intimidation to coerce migrants into exploitative employment in industries lacking regulation, such as agriculture, domestic and sex work. People smugglers lie somewhere in between. It is the illegality of their actions that often causes people smugglers to be prosecuted as ‘traffickers’, but for the difficult circumstances of migrants and the need for their services, European governments have a case to answer too. Because of their illegality, smugglers are forced to abandon lorries or boats before reaching their destinations, off-loading sea passengers onto dinghies that either sink or are confiscated upon arrival. Intermediaries in colonial times travelled with migrants for the whole journey, acted as overseers on the plantations, and often spent their entire lives with the persons they recruited and accompanied overseas. In fact the life of migrants was probably less hazardous in colonial times than it is now. The culpability of European governments for the poor conditions migrants have to suffer is in many ways similar, but the results are even more devastating today.
*

Crispin Bates is Professor of Modern and Contemporary South Asian History at the University of Edinburgh and Co-Investigator with Prof. Andrea Major (Leeds University) in the AHRC-funded ‘Becoming Coolies’ research project on the origins of Indian overseas labour migration in the colonial era. See www.coolitude.shca.ed.ac.uk.

To find out more about THE GREAT EXPERIMENT and to book tickets, visit https://www.bordercrossings.org.uk/programme/great-experiment

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The Great Experiment - rehearsal blog

A guest blog by Assistant Director Carlota Arencibia
David Furlong and Tobi King Bakare in rehearsal
THE GREAT EXPERIMENT is back after it was first developed as an R&D project two years ago. After two years of letting the piece rest, mainly to reflect about it, Michael felt it was the right time to bring it back, especially as the content of this piece feels still more relevant in today’s political and socio-economic situation.

THE GREAT EXPERIMENT tells a side of history which feels it has been buried. The indenture system happened in the aftermath of the abolition of slavery in 1833. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries over 2 million Indian migrant labourers were indentured to work in plantations all over the world: Mauritius, Jamaica, Malaysia, Guiana, Trinidad and Fiji to name but a few. They were shipped all around the world to work on sugar plantations, railways and other colonial enterprises. The literal meaning of Indenture is ‘work contract’: and that is what it was. This work contract had a 5 year duration, and included their monthly wage, the amount of hours per day (9 hours) , the number of days a week ( 6 days except Sunday), passage conditions (it included a one way passage, not the return).

The show explores two worlds: on one side the historical portrayal, on the other side how these events have affected us nowadays in present time.

So far we’ve been looking at the scenes devised by the original team two years ago, while also adding new material. We’ve been trying to go further and deeper with the whole concept. Therefore a lot of questions and dilemmas have arisen. We’ve been discussing the differences  between slavery and indenture. Has it similarities? Is it a form of semi-slavery? Or are they completely different terms?

“Indenture is indeed a state of semi-slavery. Like the slave before him, the indentured labourer cannot buy his freedom. A slave was punished for not working; so also is an indentured labourer. If he is negligent, does not attend work for a day, if he answered back, – he will suffer imprisonment for any one of these lapses. A slave could be sold and handed over by one owner to another, so too [the] indentured labourer can be transferred from one employer to another. The children of a slave inherited the taint of slavery; much in the same way, the children of an indentured labourer are subject to laws specially passed for them. The only difference between the two states is that while slavery ended only with life, an indentured labourer can be free after a certain number of years.” 
MK Gandhi - Samalochak, December 1915  
The main reason why Indenture lasted till the beginning of the 20th century was simply economic. The Empire realised that there was more productivity in paying labourers as they worked harder if they had motivation and hope; in comparison with slavery where the only thing they got in return was a whiplash.

Another key issue in the play is the ethnicities of the 5 actors, two of them being Mauritian, other two white British and one African performer. As I mentioned earlier the play offers two worlds, one of them being how this history has affected us in modern days: this world is portrayed as a group of actors in the rehearsal space trying to devise a show about indenture. Conflicts, assumptions and stereotypes come up whilst they devise regarding their ethnicities which can be seen as a form of inherited racism. Is racism embedded in the social structure?

Related to everything I have just mentioned, the discussion of what actors can play and what can they not play came up. For example: can a white man play a “coolie”? We explore this term quite  a lot - especially the way Mauritians see the word, and how Westerners assume that it has negative connotations. According to Mauritian actors Nisha and David, most Mauritian families have coolie ancestors: the conflict comes when some of them carry their heritage with pride but other families prefer hide it and deny this heritage.

Rehearsals are flowing nicely and everything is falling into place, What started as a project focusing on history, has expanded much more. It has led to topics such as identity or sense of belonging. Many other matters have been discussed but I must leave some for the actual show..…

Keep an eye out for any updates here or in our social media accounts!

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

2019 - at Border Crossings and Beyond

Ino Moxo - ORIGINS Festival
2020 will see Border Crossings reach its 25th anniversary.  During 2019, we've been busier than ever, working to bridge the gaps between cultures and to generate mutual respect and understanding in the globalised world.  The task has never felt more necessary...

In many ways, this has been an extraordinary year for us, packed with incident and excitement.  At the centre of our programme was ORIGINS 2019: our 10th anniversary Festival of First Nations. Launched at the British Museum back in March with a compelling performance by Indigenous Australian musician Eric Avery, the Festival proper covered two packed weeks in June, taking in some of London's most iconic venues and populating them with world-class Indigenous performances.  It was an incredible privilege to present the first ever London showings of Peru's Grupo Integro, with their brilliant, mind-expanding production of INO MOXO at the Southbank - a piece that made time stand still and took the consciousness of the spectator into the visionary space of Ayahuasca ritual.  Equally unforgettable, and historic, was Madeline Sayet's WHERE WE BELONG, particularly when it played the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare's Globe - placing the Indigenous voice right at the heart of British culture, and offering a completely new view of what that culture may come to mean in the 21st century.  AVA Dance company's NO WOMAN'S LAND at The Place brought Inuit culture to the Festival in the charismatic person of Naulaq LeDrew, as well as gaining a UK National Dance Awards Nomination for Avatâra Ayuso.
Where We Belong - ORIGINS Festival
I was also thrilled with the Festival's programme of Participation and Learning - in some ways the fullest yet, with brian solomon//ELECTRIC MOOSE creating a new dance piece with community dancers and a youth orchestra from the North Kensington community.  WESTWAY SOLSTICE, performed on three summer evenings in sight of Grenfell Tower, offered vitality, hope and energy for our communities and our youth.
Westway Solstice - ORIGINS Festival
Our ORIGINS participation work from the 2017 Festival had an ongoing life this year too, when the photographic exhibition POCAHONTAS AND AFTER visited St Andrews.  Word of that project has spread...   it's put us in touch with the Powhatan nation themselves.  Two of their Chiefs honoured us with their presence at the ORIGINS opening, and I've since visited them in Virginia, accompanied by Madeline Sayet, to explore the possibility of making a new play together...   Watch this space!

The year has also seen us working on a number of collaborative projects across Europe, three of them funded by the EU's Erasmus + programme. In the spring, we co-produced UNDER THE WHALEBACK with the North Frisian Theatre - a production hailed as their best work to date!  THE PROMISED LAND, which focused on the role of the arts and culture in making Europe a welcoming space for refugees, saw us undertake two fascinating weeks of exploration and training in Oldenburg and Toulouse, based on museum work and business coaching.  The project came together in the e-book which we published during the summer: it's proved a huge hit across a whole range of sectors, offering a combination of policy frameworks and recommendations, theoretical discussions and practical approaches. The project also led to Brian Woolland's new play DON'T LET THEM TELL YOU STORIES, which we presented as a rehearsed reading in October at Rich Mix.  MORE THAN WORDS, which looks at ways to work with communities who have little knowledge of the local language, reached a key point with a week in Luxembourg, during which we brought together a range of disciplines and approaches to answer a range of framing questions.  The Intellectual Outputs, including a film starring the Italian clown Raffaele Messina and directed by myself, will come out in the spring of 2020!

The spectre of Brexit has inevitably haunted these projects throughout 2019.  Almost every time we worked in Europe, we seemed to be on the edge of a precipice.  There have been many occasions when it has been very likely that our projects would simply stop - cut off, incomplete and futile.  It was a relief that we managed to finish all we had planned in THE PROMISED LAND, and it now seems that the Transition Period will allow MORE THAN WORDS to be completed during 2020.  But that is, at best, a minor gain in the face of a very frightening future.  In 2016, the day after the referendum, we had to welcome a group of European visitors to London.  On Friday 13th December 2019, I was in Southern Italy for a meeting around the MORE THAN WORDS project, and had to explain to our European partners that the election result was the point of no return. As Border Crossings enters its Silver Jubliee Year, it is faced with the prospect of being an international organisation in a nationalist country, an intercultural organisation in a monocultural space, an advocate of reconciliation under a government dedicated to false and divisive imperialist mythologies.  The last few years have been challenging - but the ones ahead will be much, much harder.

We have our strategies, of course.  We have many dear friends and allies.  We are deeply aware that the "hostile environment" makes our work all the more necessary.  You can look forward to some innovative and creative announcements in the coming months. And, most importantly, you can look forward to THE GREAT EXPERIMENT - our new devised play which explores the imperial history on which our country's new mythology of exceptionalism appears to be based. It seems we may have hit the perfect moment for this essential piece of theatre.

I wish you all a year of peace, hope and resilience.  

Friday, November 22, 2019

Jatinder Verma


Back in 1990, I took my parents to see Tartuffe at the National Theatre. It was a long way from the powdered periwigs and camp capering they had expected. This was Jatinder Verma’s production - the first by any non-white director at the National - and he had, characteristically, set it in 17th century India, and employed an acting style to match the transmogrification. Mudras and accented English offered a perfect parallel to the manners of Moliere’s France, the body language as coded as traditional Asian theatre, the rhyming couplets as sing-song as the “Binglish” delivery that Jatinder drew from his performers.

Jatinder’s presence on a National stage was not simply a progressive gesture by Richard Eyre, embracing the changing ethnic and cultural make-up of 20th century Britain.  It was a statement of intent, from both directors, as to what cultural diversity ought to mean. Jatinder didn’t direct a play from India, or one dealing with Asian people in Britain (although he certainly can do both, and frequently has with Tara Arts). On the National stage, he laid claim to a European classic - and he has many times applied his resolutely distinct Asian style of performance in that genre, including Shakespeare as well as Moliere. He has always been incredibly bold: he states his right to address “our” classic texts, and to do them in his own way. His productions are absolutely about cross-cultural dialogues and interactions - but they emphatically refuse assimilation.

It’s a stance we really need at the moment. Thirty years on from that memorable Tartuffe, the National, and the arts in general, are apparently far more “diverse”, with black and Asian people engaged, and often leading, right across the sector. It’s undoubtedly positive that the arts and culture are more representative of the society from which they emerge. But I can’t help feeling that a lot of this apparent “diversity” is - literally - skin deep, and that people of colour are performing, both on and off stage, in exactly the same way as their white counterparts. I recognise that second and third generation migrants may well feel themselves to be as fully British as white people - but that doesn’t stop me questioning whether it is really “cultural diversity” if the cultural product itself remains essentially unchanged, and therefore the cultural and social assumptions remain intact. It’s very rare nowadays that we see anything as bold, as challenging, as Jatinder’s confrontations with the classics.

Over the years, he has become a friend and an ally. We’ve co-produced CONSUMED with his company Tara Arts, and will be presenting THE GREAT EXPERIMENT in their beautiful new theatre in February. Jatinder and I have had many conversations about the arts landscape, about theatre in Britain, India and Africa, about the politics of the aesthetic. I was genuinely shocked when he emailed on Tuesday morning to say he would be stepping down from Tara at the end of the year.  It feels like the ravens leaving the Tower of London - the company he has run since 1976 feels totally synonymous with him.  I hope we’ll still be able to see his work and to hear his voice: he stands against the blandness and sameness, the complacency that can so easily creep into our art form.

Friday, November 01, 2019

Diverting from Diversity - The Doctor

Joy Richardson and Juliet Stevenson in THE DOCTOR
After the ORIGINS Festival in June, I did an interview for the Westway Trust’s new website, responding to the Festival as a whole, and particularly to brian solomon/ELECTRIC MOOSE’s beautiful community performance, WESTWAY SOLSTICE.  The interview raised the vexed and current question of who can / should / gets to tell particular stories in particular spaces at particular times.  It’s a question that has been worrying me for a while…. 

The current orthodoxy is that theatre about (say) Nigeria should be made by Nigerian people, theatre about China by Chinese people, and so on. In many ways, I’m in total sympathy with this. In 2013, when the RSC was being hauled over the coals for presenting the Chinese classic THE ORPHAN OF ZHAO with only three Asian performers in the cast (variously playing a Maid and two thirds of a dog), Border Crossings was held up as an example of a more positive approach, making CONSUMED with Chinese performers not only playing but creating the Chinese characters, including dialogue in their own language. It was our third co-production with a Chinese company, and representative of our intercultural, collaborative approach. Both in our own productions, and in the visiting performances which we bring to ORIGINS, integrity and authenticity are central to what we do.  

However, there have been occasions when I have been challenged about my own role in making this work. I have been asked whether it is up to me (“as a white male”) to curate Indigenous work for London audiences, to direct and shape the performances of Chinese actor-devisers, to bring a Ghanaian text to the English stage. My response has always been that Border Crossings’ work does not appropriate anyone else’s culture: rather its engages with other cultures in a positive and dialogic way, recognising that we are all part of a globalised world, in which we need a dynamic and democratic interaction between cultures and artists in order to imagine how we can jointly inhabit that global space. I happen to come from one of the the countries that was responsible for the colonial processes that brought globalisation about - but that should not exclude me from the current discussions. If we are to recognise how our histories brought us here, then we had better not exclude anybody. If we want our theatre to make a real difference, even on the most basic “diversity agenda”, then it needs to speak to white audiences as well as black ones; to advocate for inclusivity by demonstrating it - not by ghettoising.

It worries me that British theatre seems currently to be stuck in an unhealthy position, uncomfortably close to racial essentialism. The orthodoxy is becoming that ONLY Chinese people can talk about China, ONLY Rwandan people can talk about Rwanda, ONLY gay or queer people can talk about sexuality….  and so on. While I absolutely do not deny the centrality of viewpoint, it is not healthy or progressive in a multicultural space to set up barriers to participation and engagement.  To exclude white males from the debate simply reverses the status quo: it does not lead us towards the equal space that we should surely crave.  

Robert Icke’s superb production of THE DOCTOR (which I saw recently at the Almeida, and which transfers to the West End in the New Year) suggested a radical re-think in the way theatre responds to “diversity”. It had a very diverse cast - in many different ways, not just racially. However, with the exception of Juliet Stevenson in the central role, and an important scene which was actually about the theorising of viewpoint, the casting was emphatically not done on the basis of race, gender, or other “identity” characteristics.  Indeed, there was a deliberate distancing of the performers from the roles they were playing, with the effect that the audience became actively engaged in a creative and political dialogue with the production. For example, the character FATHER was played by the Irish actor Paul Higgins.  FATHER is a Catholic priest, who Stevenson’s Doctor RUTH prevents from seeing, and giving the Last Rites to a dying girl.  The natural assumption, as the audience hears the actor’s accent, is that the priest is Irish.  So it comes as a shock, a disruption, when we discover through the dialogue that he (the character, not the actor) is black.  Does this change how we think about the situation, we find ourselves asking.  Should it?  Why should the priest’s race make a difference?  If the production had been cast by race and gender, by essentialism, then it would not have been able to raise these important questions about race and gender in such a powerful and disturbing way.  In this instance, it seems to me that the approach to diversity that aims at equality through literal representation is shown to be potentially quite conservative - allowing the audience a complacency around their own liberal assumptions.  

At the heart of Icke’s production was Joy Richardson, who played OLIVIA in our 1999 production of TWELFTH NIGHT, which toured Zimbabwe for the British Council. Joy is a very distinctive figure: a woman of African descent who was born in Guyana. During the play, it slowly emerged that she was playing CHARLIE, RUTH’s lover who died some time before. What was extraordinary was that, even in the closing scenes where this character came to the fore, there was never any indication as to whether CHARLIE was black, white or Asian; female or male (or other). This did not reduce in any way the emotional power of the relationship between RUTH and CHARLIE, or the sorrow of the loss. Indeed, it gave a strange purity to the emotion, precisely because it seemed to move beyond the bounds of “identity”. I’m not suggesting that the play somehow took the audience towards “the universal”, which remains a Western myth, used to subsume other cultures into a Judaeo-Christian world view; but it did suggest that in the most fundamental, physical, emotional and spiritual aspects of our lives, in love and death, there is a common humanity that goes beyond the politics of identity and separation. Love reaches beyond the self - that it the whole point. And death is the one thing we have to agree really is universal.  So perhaps the body, which has come to be read as the signifier of difference through identity, might also be the means by which we come to the next stage of our cultural and political journey.  
Adjoa Andoh as RICHARD II
Theatre is not a literal space: it does not attempt to reproduce reality, or to signify reality through the precise representational approach of film. Rather it constructs a metaphorical space through which we can confront what is strange, constructed and unreal in our own lives.  This is why Brecht deliberately set his plays in metaphorical, distant worlds, revealing the constructed and performed nature of our societies through the medium of theatrical un-reality. That is why, although THE GOOD PERSON OF SZECHUAN is apparently set in China, Jane Horrocks could play Shen-Te and Shui-Ta with impunity - just as Adjoa Andoh was such strong casting as RICHARD II at the Globe.  The freedom to diverge from a literal and essentialised “reality” has to be central to a political theatre that de-constructs the fictions of established structures. 

The delight of this approach to diverse casting is that it avoids the pretence that an audience can simply ignore the physical characteristics of the bodies on stage before them, often called “colour-blind” or “gender-blind” casting. That is just a lie. When somebody stands in front of us, the first things we notice are the physical carriers of identity. As August Wilson put it in his famous 1996 talk “The Ground on Which I Stand”:

“Colourblind casting is an aberrant idea that has never had any validity other than as a tool of the Cultural Imperialists who view American culture, rooted in the icons of European culture, as beyond reproach in its perfection….  For a Black actor to stand on the stage as part of a social milieu that has denied him his gods, his culture, his humanity, his mores, his ideas of himself and the world he lives in, is to be in league with a thousand nay-sayers who wish to corrupt the vigour and spirit of his heart.”  

This is every bit as true of European, including British, culture. A theatre that is alive to the complexities of the current moment will acknowledge the histories that Wilson cites, and will cast performers not to assimilate them all into a tradition of theatre that remains just as it always was, and not merely as literal representations of “real”, “other” identities. The intercultural theatre required by the 21st century will cast people because of who they are, because of what they can bring to a role - but not in the naive way that pretends the performer actually is the person they are representing. It will recognise that the playful nature of the stage offers us the opportunity to read a character through the eyes of a performer - setting up multiple viewpoints on the action and its significance. We need a theatre that opens up our minds and our emotions - not one that reduces our cultural politics to racialised essentialism.