Features Published 28 March 2019

Idols and Superstitions – A Conversation Between Jamal Gerald and Maddy Costa

Eavesdrop on Jamal Gerald and Maddy Costa's conversation about spirituality, their working relationship and his new show 'Idol'.
Maddy Costa

Jamal Gerald’s new show ‘Idol’ is on at Transform Festival. Photo: The Other Richard

In June 2018, Jamal Gerald contacted me to ask if I would be interested in working as a dramaturge/outside eye on Idol, a new show he was making on colourism and pop culture. I had only recently participated – and had an amazing conversation – in his one-to-one work You See… so obviously I jumped at the chance. In the months since, Idol has held on to this core concern with colourism and pop culture but expanded to include multiple other strands of thought related to Black representation, building on his experiences growing up Catholic and as a Black queer man. I’m coming to this work as a white straight atheist woman, and we’re both working in an industry dominated by whiteness: inevitably these things have occasioned a lot of conversation between us about where we’re coming from, how we meet, and how the work might meet an audience.

We thought it would be fun to have one of those conversations sort-of publicly, and so made a list of five questions each to ask each other: three that we shared in advance, two that we revealed in the moment of talking. We hope you enjoy eavesdropping on our working process together.

Jamal: OK then Maddy Costa, my first question is this: superstitions are discussed in the show, are you the superstitious type?

Maddy: Oh my god, so much. Especially when I was younger: when I was at school someone made up a superstition that stepping on metal gas or electric covers in the street was bad luck, and even though I knew it was bullshit – I’d heard the girl just make it up! – for years after I felt weird walking on one. So I’m really susceptible to them. But also, Cypriot culture is very superstitious: another time when I was younger, I was talking with a school friend who is Iraqi Jewish, she noticed that I was wearing the Evil Eye and confessed that she had a sachet of salt sewn into the hem of her skirt, also to ward off evil. We agreed that our parents are weird and have been really good friends ever since.

My parents have so many superstitions: they say you shouldn’t put shoes on a table because that’s what prisoners do before walking to the gallows so it’s like inviting in death, and you should never sweep up directly after someone leaves your house because it’s like you’re sweeping away their body as if you want them to die. When I was a kid we had to move house four times in quick succession and just before the fourth move they talked to a friend about it who asked, do you have any elephants in the house? Because apparently that is very unlucky, you should never have an elephant in the house. So while we were packing my parents realised, we had loads! And then they had no idea what to do with them, because the same friend said you can’t throw them away: you have to give them away. I think they gave them all to charity, and their luck did actually change after that.

I try hard not to be superstitious but it’s so deeply engrained. There’s a real belief that people carry the Evil Eye inside them, they are themselves innately evil and wish evil on others, so you should wear it or have it in the house to deflect that. I find that idea quite uncomfortable now: I stopped wearing the Evil Eye a few years ago, because I didn’t want to invite that belief system into my brain.

OK then, Jamal Gerald, a question for you: what does spirituality mean to you?

Jamal: For me it’s a personal journey. It’s exploring an aspect of my freedom, because I feel like you can go at your own pace with spirituality, there’s no rush, and there’s no rules – I’m a rebel at heart, I hate rules. It’s about connecting with something greater than me, but also connecting with my higher self as well. That’s what it means to me in a nutshell.

My go now: did you have any idols growing up? If so, who were they?

Maddy: I so did, and that’s partly why it’s been lovely working on this show, because a lot of them were in music. An obvious early one was Madonna, I saw the video for Into the Groove and thought she was amazing, she didn’t look like anyone else – and soon after that I saw the film Desperately Seeking Susan and that was massive for me, that free-spirited, elusive person she plays in that film really impacted my imagination. At the other end of my teens there was a musician called Tara Jane O’Neil who I thought was amazing, she played in two bands but she also does fine art, pen-and-ink illustrations, but really scratchy, not conventionally beautiful work at all, and I really liked how she didn’t do one thing or the other. They’re my two key ones, which is weird, especially with Madonna: that was so of that moment, being a kid and seeing someone who is not doing anything that you feel like you’re being told that you’re supposed to do, and thinking, maybe everything is going to be OK.

My one for you is sort of related to that. I have a specific bookshelf in my house where I put all the books I love so much that if I ever wrote a book I’d like it to be like that in some way. So, do you have a similar shelf in your head for performances, and if so, what might be on there?

Jamal: Oh, for performance? That’s interesting. Well, one is a show you worked on – salt. by Selina Thompson. I saw two versions, the version when she just came back from the cargo ship, and the version that she performed in Edinburgh: both times the show had an impact on me but mostly the second time, after the second time I literally bawled my eyes out and not many shows have done that. I just thought wow, I hope I can get to that standard one day. Sometimes I’ve had this fear about making autobiographical work, that it’s self-indulgent, but I’m not afraid of that term any more: Selina made me feel better about my practice, in the sense of it’s OK to share your stories, and even though her piece is autobiographical, she makes it bigger than herself, she connects it to other issues within our society.

I also remember seeing Selina perform for the first time and thinking wow because with my university course, you would be convinced that there were no Black artists, on the curriculum we would study mostly white artists. So seeing Selina – and to still see her making great work – is really special for me.

One for you: what are the pros and cons of idolatry?

Maddy: I guess it depends on who the idol is and why you’re holding them up that way: is the idol someone you’ve freely chosen for yourself – and there are problems with that too – or is the idolatry something someone has built around them to manipulate and control other people. The really obvious negative is cult leaders, people who build a system of idolatry around themselves: there’s so much violence in that. But in terms of “freely choosing”, thinking about me and Madonna, yes that’s me choosing, but that’s what’s in the pop culture around me and that’s who I’m exposed to, so there’s also a question of who’s choosing who gets to be in the public eye and who doesn’t – who gets to be put on that pedestal of idol. All those things are negative.

On the other hand, it’s really interesting listening to you talk about Selina, because there are probably ways in which I think about Selina that have an element of idolatry to them. I think she’s incredible, an amazing thinker, I quite often have this thought process in my head of “I wonder what Selina would think about this”. But is that idolatry, or inspiration?

For me personally, the pros of idolatry are that I get to think beyond myself – which relates to what you were saying about spirituality – I get to be inspired, but I also get to improve myself, or exercise something that might be better in me. And the cons are that there are so many dangers in terms of power structures. I talk to my kids a lot about the ways in which I see all religions in quite a benign way, as storytelling systems, but also as pernicious systems of social control.

I’ll ask you one now. One of my favourite things I have gained from working with you is that you told me about a conversation with your poetry teacher, Khadijah Ibrahiim, about someone described in history as a slave, who she described instead using the verb enslaved. I’d not had that thought process before and thought that was brilliant. Is there a thing that is a major surprise or learning for you out of this project?

Jamal: That’s interesting because I have a similar question for you! I still feel like I’m learning a lot – and because I’m still so much in the process, it’s hard to pin down exactly what it is. I’m definitely learning to work in a team and to be a leader: I’ve worked on my own projects before but I feel like I’m really leading now, which is good because it’s difficult! I’m the youngest person on the team, having to be in charge of a bunch of adults – even though I’m an adult too. There have been times where I’ve learned that it’s OK for me not to know the answer to something straight away. I can get to that answer eventually and it’s good to have time to think that through.

I’ll ask you now: what have you learned while working on Idol?

Maddy: Definitely that thing I mentioned about using the verb instead of the noun. I’ve been thinking about it for some years: I have a brilliant child-raising book called How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, in that it says that if you continually label a child naughty they will absorb that, or live up to it, or be defensive or whatever, whereas if you say they’ve done a naughty thing, it completely changes their relationship with the action. So I feel like I know this but I need to apply it more widely.

Another thing is that during the process we’ve had lots of conversation about whiteness, prejudice, racism, and we’ve also talked a lot about having a workshop about Orisha worship, led by a woman called Stella, who I totally assumed was a Black woman. So then when we had the workshop and Stella not only wasn’t Black, she had the same ethnic background, Greek Cypriot, as me, I thought: well that tells me a lot about how prejudice works in my brain. There are lots of different forms of prejudice, some of them are not malicious but they’re still closed-minded, so anything that reminds me that I need to work harder with that, I find really useful.

Also, you asked me to be dramaturge and that’s something I haven’t done very much of, I love it but I very much feel like I’m learning how to do it, so that conversation about the developing text for the show has been a learning conversation and really nice – especially learning how to take on board the feedback you get on the script from other people.

My turn: you’re making a show about Black representation, and I’m curious what feelings you might be carrying about members of the audience – Black queer men, say, or Christian people like your Auntie – who maybe don’t like or want what you are representing?

Jamal: Well, Black people are not one-dimensional, therefore I don’t expect every Black person to agree with everything I have to say, or even relate to all the things I explore within the show. So that’s OK! I just hope no one dismisses my thoughts and experiences just because they don’t agree or can’t relate. I guess my feelings are just being optimistic that they’ll listen to my perspective instead of labelling me as wrong. Also, whatever I say in the show, it may be quite harsh but it’s coming from a place of love: if I didn’t care about Black people I wouldn’t be saying these things. But if there are Black queer men who see the show and still want to put white queer men on a pedestal: fine! If Black people who see the show still want to worship white Jesus, fine, that’s their prerogative. I just wish them the best.

But I’ve also had fears of the show not being Black enough. I’ve worried about what people will say about me working with a white dramaturge and having some white people on the team. But I’ve learned that if I as a Black person who’s made the show about Black representation think that it’s Black enough, that’s OK. It’s about what I think first and foremost because this is my story, my experience that I’m sharing. I think I just need to have that confidence in what I’ve created, because I feel like what I’ve made is great – oh, I think that’s the first time I’ve said that out loud!

I’ve had this conversation with Selina actually. She said to me, even if you had an all-Black team, it doesn’t mean every Black person who went on to see that work would enjoy or relate to it, it wouldn’t necessarily be the most woke show ever made, that’s just not realistic. That’s something I’ve learned as well, that having an all-Black team doesn’t necessarily mean that what I want to be achieved will be achieved.

It’s my last question for you now. What advice would you give to white dramaturges or artists working on a show exploring race?

Maddy: I’ve been doing a lot of work on the well-made play recently, and structures of playwriting, as part of which I was thinking about what it is that forms your taste. What are you absorbing from the culture around you that informs how you want to make stuff? I’m not making your show, of course not, but whatever I absorb and think about the kind of art I like watching, inevitably affects the kinds of questions I ask you and the kinds of things that I notice. A conversation we’ve had a lot is about how much you do or don’t need to explain something, and my taste is that I’m very comfortable with stuff not being explained – which is good because your desire has also been to not over explain stuff. So if I’m going to phrase that as advice, one would be know where you’re coming from, recognise the structures that are working on you – because structures are working on us all the time.

Another thing would be about being honest. We’ve talked a lot about how you are really direct in how you approach conversations with people, which has encouraged me to be direct as well. It’s important to be open – and a really important thing to be open and honest about is things that you’re frightened or worried about in your own head. If I don’t understand something, is it that you have to explain it, is it something you’re making a bunch of assumptions about that would be useful to unpack, or is it something I need to turn back on me, and ask if I’m coming to it in a closed way? So really rigorously questioning yourself. Just to talk about Selina again, one of the things she does better than I think anyone I know is ask herself the question: where am I complicit? This brings us directly to working as a white dramaturge with someone making a show about Black representation: if I’m asking myself where am I complicit, that includes where am I complicit in expecting you to explain something to me that maybe it’s up to me to go out and find that shit out for myself.

My last one is also an advice question: what advice would you give to Black artists working on a show exploring race who are trying to deal with the ways in which theatre is a structurally racist industry?

Jamal: I actually have quite a lot! First advice is: think about who gives you advice. Not everyone is coming from a loving place, and not everyone wants to see you succeed. Jealousy is a thing in the arts. I’ve noticed, especially from people who are older than me, people have said to me: ‘I’ve done this, so you should do it too.’ But whatever works for them may not work for you. And just because someone couldn’t do something when they were your age, doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t do it.

I’m saying things I wish people had said to me before I started in the arts because it would have been so useful. Build a network with other Black artists – it’s always useful to have relationships with people who may know what you’re going through. Think about self-care: if your mind and body are telling you to stop and take a break – do it! I’m also still learning how to cope in this inherently racist industry: even though I may get commissions, I have had to compromise, which sucks but that’s the way things are.

Always go with your gut. Don’t be afraid to be unapologetic and say how you feel. Some people may be upset with what you have to say, but fuck ’em. Don’t be afraid of failure. Be ambitious.
I was told once by a white artist that my work is very ambitious, which I personally thought was fucked up. Like, who the fuck are you? She said it in a way that was very like I shouldn’t be doing what I’m doing, and what I’m trying to do is unrealistic. So basically, don’t let anyone ever tell you how to make work. Always keep in mind why you’re making work in the first place. And continue to take up space.

Idol is at Prime Studios, Leeds, 27 and 28 April as part of the Transform Festival. https://transformfestival.org/event/idol/

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Maddy Costa

Maddy Costa is a writer, dramaturg, researcher into socially engaged/participatory/community arts, daydreamer and fan of dogs. She works in collaboration with other artists/writers, including Andy Field on the Tiny Letter project Criticism and Love, and Mary Paterson and Diana Damian Martin on Something Other and The Department of Feminist Conversations. Things she likes making include zines, prints, spaces for conversation, cakes and 1950s-style frocks. She hosts a pop-up “book group for performance” called Theatre Club where she has all her best conversations about theatre.