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Features Published 4 April 2017

Jamal Harewood: “I know I’m pushing people’s buttons”

'The Privileged' uses a furry polar bear suit to confront racism head on. Alice Saville chats to Jamal Harewood about audience reactions, game theatre, and his new performance 'Word'.
Alice Saville

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Sometimes there’s a kind of bubble of safety wrapped round live performance. You can expect to be challenged, yes, but there’s a culture of niceness too. Only the most confident front-row-sitters are picked for audience interaction, the loose wires and trip hazards are taped down, and the commercial conditions of fringe theatre reassure you that whatever discomfort you’re undergoing is highly unlikely to extend beyond 55 minutes in length. Jamal Harewood’s solo performance ‘The Privileged’ exists outside this bubble. From the moment you pick your way, in dim light, through the greasy fried chicken that’s strewn on the floor you know that you’re entering into a space where your comfort is not important, and normal rules don’t apply. He wears a white polar bear costume, hunched in the centre of a circle of chairs. Envelopes on each audience member’s seat contain instructions that become more and more uncomfortable, making the group decide whether to follow them – and in doing so, comply with cultural stereotyping of/institutionalised violence against young black men – by force-feeding him fried chicken, or stripping him naked, or wrestling him to the ground.

The weirdness (and power) of the piece is that it makes you feel angry, upset, hurt – but the locus of all this emotion is never the man in the polar bear suit who’s provoking it. Jamal Harewood stays completely silent throughout the performance, leaving you to wrestle (metaphorically and literally) with his mute, politicised body – encased in innocuous white fur. And around him, the audience shout, run, struggle with their feelings or walk out completely. It’s a long way from the touchy-feely audience care that performance-goers are used to. But it’s necessary. And that’s something that comes across when I speak to Jamal Harewood, who explains his approach to the audience with slow thoughtfulness. “During the performance I don’t think about whether they get hurt or not, because I’m in a completely different mindset. I can’t act in a way that caters to them. But obviously as a human being, I care if they get upset, or hurt. Ideally as a human, I’d try to approach them afterwards.”

Jamal Harewood. The Privileged. Photo: Guido Mencari.

Jamal Harewood performs The Privileged. Photo: Guido Mencari.

I struggle to imagine what it’s like being inside that furry suit, watching the room destabilise. Jamal Harewood explains that “It’s quite hard to see people’s reactions with the polar bear head on, on all fours. I know I am pushing people’s buttons, and I have no idea what’s going to happen so I can’t go in feeling a certain way. I’m really detached from it all, emotionally I think.”

Every performance of The Privileged is totally different: with full audience compliance, it could be done in half an hour, but most dissolve into heated group discussions or stand-offs or walk-outs. As Jamal Harewood elaborates, “If they come in and think it’s just a performance, we’re going to get it done. But if people see it as real life, and they don’t want to be seen as racist… the first performance, an argument broke out early on. No one wanted to tell me to eat because of the implications of telling a black man to eat chicken.”

I’ve never felt so white, or so uncomfortable about it, as I did in that room. And given that feeling, I wondered how the mix of backgrounds in the room impacted the piece’s reception. Jamal Harewood explains that “I don’t know how an all-white audience is going to react but I have more of an understanding of it. With a black person, there’s very mixed reactions. At Spill Festival, one guy just like sat back and said “I get what you’re trying to do, you don’t need to do it anymore”. Then another black person the same day saw that, but decided it wasn’t enough to sit back, he wanted to make me stop the performance.”

His first ideas for the piece, which he developed while doing an MA at the University of Chichester, made skin colour literally invisible. “It originally started off as a piece in the dark, which was a way of getting away from people’s differences. You can’t tell who’s who, I assumed everyone would get on better without materialistic stuff getting in the way. Then as I was developing it, I saw a Gumtree advert where they were going to give free room and board to someone if they agreed to dress up as a seal for two hours a day, and not speak, to literally just act like a seal, and it kind of went from there. I smashed together the workings from the darkness piece, the community of having everyone together, and the sheer bizarreness of a person in an animal suit trying to survive.”

The performance I attended included memorable responses from performance maker Ellie Stamp, who refused to comply with the show’s rules. It was a productive encounter: since then, she’s gone on to work with Jamal Harewood on his new piece, WordAs he explains, it’s true to its name: “It’s basically an exploration of words, and seeing if a word can reformed or reappropriated.” But ironically, he’s staying silent. “At the moment I’m not speaking, I’m not even involved in it. I was very aware that the whole reason that my original idea for the darkness piece didn’t work was because there was a sort of hierarchy between the audience and performer, with the performer at the top of the pyramid with the audience below.” In Word, the audience become hosts and contestants in a gameshow about language, and the power words have to hurt and offend. Further details are probably unhelpful at this point (like The Privileged, it might well work better if you don’t know what you’re getting into) but after a few workshops and try-outs, the first performances will be on this month at Camden People’s Theatre, where Jamal Harewood is now an associate artist.

Having made two works that look so closely at stereotypes and the fraught cultural context of blackness, I wondered if Jamal Harewood felt constrained or expected to make work about race. He explains that “I don’t feel like I’m pressurised to necessarily make work on being black, but all my knowledge is from that perspective. And I don’t want to say it may be easier to be black and make work, but I suppose being a minority no matter where you are, you stand out more. In England white is seen as sort of the normal, and it’s very difficult to stand out if you’re perceived as the normal, you have to do something more substantial.”

He concludes: “The Privileged wouldn’t work if you were to perform it.” And he’s right (for many reasons, I’m a terrible actor as well as a white woman) but he’s also massively underselling the piece’s achievement, too. It’s provocative, intense, uncompromising, and completely unpredictable. Game theatre is incredibly hard to get right. And as any number of grumbling Exeunt reviews testify, interactivity often ends up being more bumbling than mindblowing, as performances roll out along predetermined lines. But when a game’s truly interactive, the people in that room can shift your whole worldview. After all, in Jamal Harewood’s words, in straight theatre, The audience have to be quiet, observe the performer, and take their word as gospel. The way I see it is you’re paying for this, then you just sit down and watch. Why would you not want to get involved?”

Jamal Harewood’s Word is on at Camden People’s Theatre from April 11th-15th. The Privileged is touring this spring. Full details on his website https://harewooo.com/performance-dates/

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Alice Saville

Alice is a writer, arts journalist and handicrafts enthusiast. As well as writing and commissioning for Exeunt, she's a regular contributor to Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine, and makes costumes for performance.