Features Essays Published 15 February 2018

Black Girl Magic

Ahead of her show 'The Year of the Rooster Monk' at Vault Festival, Giselle LeBleu writes on resurrecting pre-digital ghosts and channeling dark forces.
Giselle LeBleu
Giselle LeBleu in rehearsal for 'The Year of the Rooster Monk'

Giselle LeBleu in rehearsal for ‘The Year of the Rooster Monk’

Growing up I’ve always knew that I was young, gifted and black. But at the age of 27 I was told that I was magical.

So where did that idea come from? In 2013 the phrase ‘Black Girls Are Magic’ was coined by CaShaw Thompson to celebrate black women’s achievements and to offer us a perspective through which we could value ourselves and our own fabulousness. A movement was born and the hashtag BlackGirlMagic proliferated – with women using it to highlight anything from a cool hairdo to being the first black woman astronaut, and everything in-between. As with all social media movements, it’s had its fair share of detractors and critics, and has waxed and waned in the way that hashtags do, yet its essentially empowering message is here to stay.

While the hashtag no longer dominates the trending charts, it is still working its magic on me (pun entirely intended). I’ve often wondered that if Black Girl Magic applies to every black woman and girl, then how do I tap into my own? If you look at the attendees of an AfroPunk festival in Brooklyn, you can see Black Girl Magic at play: from the hair to the outfits to the talent being showcased – and just the pure joy of those women is palpable and infectious. It’s easy for me to see it in the black women around me, and maybe that’s its strength as a movement: it allows us to identify and support it in others, and consequently to take pride in being part of the collective that has been born into this skin.

But its appeal doesn’t stop there. I’m also a comedian – a clown if you will – and I love the absurd. And as the great literalist that I am, I decided that I was going to make a triptych of pieces about black women who are actively searching for their magic, both real and imagined, in the unlikeliest of places. Of course making work, making art is a cathartic way of accessing my own idiosyncratic magic – even if that magic sometimes has me conjuring up darkness. Not all BlackGirlMagic is rainbows and Shea butter. Take the mononymous Omarosa – a black woman so reviled at home in the US, yet undeniably a card carrying member of #BlackGirlMagic – however dark her arts may be. I try not to shy away from any of it.

And where does this all fit into our show? Well, for The Year Of The Rooster Monk at VAULT 2018 we wanted to reverse the sleight-of-hand illusion of theatre and expose the messiness of life as an actress – an actress who, in a state of desperation, attempts to channel the occult to get a part whilst fending off the claustrophobia of millennial isolation. In the process she finds herself inhabited by the spirit of Oda Mae Brown. I’ve always loved the movie Ghost – a bizarre story in which a psychic sidekick (Oda Mae Brown played by Whoopi Goldberg) is coerced, bullied and threatened by a white male ghost singing “I’m Henry VIII I am” until she submits and helps him to solve the mystery of his murder. Its early ’90s weird wrongness naturally meant I had to include it in a show.

Oda is an interesting prototype for BlackGirlMagic – her initial cynical charlatanism shifts and she learns to tap into her true ‘gift’ as she discovers that she can commune with the dead. As an actor, I feel a kinship to Oda’s experience, to the delicate relationship between illusion and truth – fraudulence and authenticity. I know that sometimes I fail to tap into my own gift, and I perform in an automated way, meaninglessly uttering a script with the deceitfulness of a quack. But sometimes, just sometimes I become a conduit for truth and I find myself harnessing an energy that is raw and wild and true. And there it is: my magic.

It’s worth noting that while the critical reception of the film was positive and Whoopi Goldberg the actress received a BAFTA for her performance, the character Oda Mae was criticised for perpetuating the ‘Magical Negro’ figure, a stock character in American narratives who aids the white protagonist. And it is undoubtedly that the white couple at the heart of the story who profit most from Oda’s gift. This is a kind of magic far removed from what we’re talking about here. Yet it is in these contradictions that I see a beautiful parallel in the BlackGirlMagic movement – a movement that will have its critics, but that can eventually outwit, outrun and outsmart the stereotypes of the past. And it is in this way that our show The Year of the Rooster Monk challenges and celebrates the faultlines of our identity.

The Year of the Rooster Monk is on at Vault Festival from 7-11th March. Book tickets here

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Giselle LeBleu is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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