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Features Published 2 December 2016

Putting Words In Your Mouth

Maddy Costa discusses Scottee's "vital, uneasy, excoriating, demanding" new work.
Maddy Costa
Putting Words In Your Mouth being performed at the Roundhouse.

Putting Words In Your Mouth being performed at the Roundhouse.

There is a question that performance artist Selina Thompson – outside eye for Putting Words in Your Mouth – has been asking on twitter in the wake of Trump’s election: who is we? It’s a useful one to have in mind when reading any of the plethora of articles (let alone the hand-gnawing twitter commentary) that have been published over summer and autumn claiming, whether in sadness or fury, as plea or dare, the necessity of speaking to people who voted leave in the EU referendum, the better to comprehend the mindset that once again has political sway. In a typical usage, the we crops up at the end of a column by Janice Turner published in the Times on Saturday 26 November, in which she challenges “progressive minds” to: “break free of safe spaces and comfort zones, to join grassroots organisations, to ‘interrogate rhetoric’ so we know our enemies well, to visit parts of ‘Brexit Britain’ and try to understand our compatriots, who are the same mix of good and bad they were before June 23”. Turner’s piece is difficult, because it’s persuasive and often quite reasonable – but for tiny signals, like that slipped “we”, which indicate that she is addressing a white middle-class reader, goading them for the fact that they will “stay out of power for ever” even as she frames the white middle-classes as the only possible candidates for future “progressive” leadership. Realistic? Probably. Racist? You decide.

I’ve checked Turner’s twitter feed and there’s no indication that she’s been to see Putting Words in Your Mouth, which is a pity, as it ticks every item on her checklist. To make it, Scottee broke free of his queer cabaret comfort zone, travelled the country interviewing members of self-declaring LGBT groups within the UK Independence Party and English Defence League, interrogated their rhetoric and tried to understand. In the free-sheet notes distributed at the end of the show he provides a list of grassroots organisations, including UK Black Pride, Hope not Hate and Movement for Justice, that the audience might support in response. His starting point was his own curiosity, and a propensity for using theatre as a space in which to discomfort people; more than a year later, what he has is a work of staggering prescience, so directly does it speak to the specific moment. Either that, or he knocked it up in a fortnight.

Even if I wasn’t kidding, the time and deliberation that have gone into this show are manifest in the craft of the staging. This is Scottee’s directorial debut and it’s immaculate. The conceit is quite simple: what the audience hear are the words of three white men, each with his own distinctive accent, captured in audio recordings, but what is seen are three performers of colour, who lip-sync every word with felicity and skill. When music plays, it’s two-tone: the mash of ska and punk that united black and white working-class communities in the late-1970s before being co-opted by white-supremacist groups. Behind the trio are moving billboards painted with key words: multiculturalism, assimilate, tolerance. Gradually that word tolerance is whitewashed, and over that layer is painted a single red cross. What begins as a portrait of a subsect of gay men becomes an inquisition into the soul of England.

There’s something else painted on one of the billboards: a clumsy, wonky number 28. The three men interviewed grew up amid the homophobia legitimised anew in 1988 by the local government act banning the promotion of homosexuality. Inevitably, they suffered. They talk of what it is to be subjected to a constant stream of verbal abuse, how that is internalised, the damage it does to self-image. One of them attempted through religious conversion to pray the gay away. The man from Birmingham – throughout, the most intriguing and complex in his argument – describes his frustration at the division between boys and girls, gay and straight, his resistance to binary from the earliest of ages. It’s only when things are neutral, he remarks, that he feels relaxed.

All this is delivered by the performers with exaggerated gestures whose silent commentary feels unfair, acid scorn in the face of sympathy. And because the movements remain at the same heightened pitch, the shift in the baseline of the interviews creeps up less perceptibly. The man from Manchester is from an immigrant family that, thanks to a mentality of striving for better, integrated completely; other groups, he notes carefully, aren’t so successful. The man from Birmingham talks of the relief of taking part in Pride in Blackpool, the feeling of acceptance, the charming way old ladies would complement his peacock outfits on the street: a far cry from how things feel in Birmingham, where what he encounters is homophobic prejudice among certain minority communities. All the language is still so couched. But the performers see right through it.

The more the interviewees’ racism rises to the surface, the more uncomfortable it is that these words are lip-synced by people of colour. That the recordings demand they remain silent, going through the motions of attention. There is space for them to care for each other, a gentle hand here, a glance of support there, but when the man from Leicester remarks, with typical assurance, that he doesn’t think people are inherently racist, the single surprising “fuck off” that explodes from Lasana Shabazz in response is as emphatic and helpless as a flailing punch. The performers have no way to fight back, in here or out there. Because what the LGBT UKIP and EDL members genuinely believe is that they are the voice of reason, the people brave enough to speak sense. “Straight-talking,” says one, “if you’ll pardon the pun.”

As an audience member – and I will label myself very specifically here as white of second-generation immigrant European former British colony ethnicity, upwardly mobile middle-class of working-class background, also straight and female – it’s hard to sit with these voices of racism. For many reasons, but emphatically so when, here and there, now and then, I found myself agreeing with them. I found myself agreeing! Even writing that down makes me feel queasy. I found myself agreeing when Birmingham likened the lowly status of women within traditionalist Islam to the powerlessness of women in English society before the 20th century: the repression, the arranged marriages, it’s like Jane Austen, he comments. I found myself agreeing when he pointed out that no one should have a cultural excuse for homophobia. I even agreed when he fumed at people telling him that he can’t vote UKIP because he’s gay, not only refusing to see the two as mutually exclusive, just as he’s always refused to see male and female as distinct and separate, but refusing to be infantilized. Look at it that way and of course he’s right.

It’s not that Birmingham’s argument – and I focus on it because he was most vociferous, and cogent, and eloquent – is inconsistent: it’s that it’s impermeable. There is no opportunity, within the structure of the show, to tell him he’s wrong, and for him to listen. There’s no way of reminding him that much of what he’s complaining about in Muslim culture, or black cultures, isn’t the expression of religion but of patriarchy. That in failing to make that differentiation, he is part of the problem, extenuating patriarchy when he should be attacking it. That when he says he likes things to be neutral, what he means is that he likes things to be essentially masculine, because that’s how patriarchy frames neutrality. That when he describes Islam as a younger religion than Christianity – mate, in the scheme of human history, that 600 years is about as significant as the twitch of a mosquito’s wing – he sounds not only patronising but ridiculous. That when he says British culture has moved on in its attitude to women, he ignores the fact that women battled not for decades but centuries to change their social status, and that fight is far from over. That when he says Britain didn’t have to let in people from its former colonies, that doing so was an act of generosity, that there is nowhere else in the world where one can encounter the true spirit of Britishness, he sounds both abominably privileged and ignorant of the ways in which Britain exploited other countries for its own prosperity. Except here I am, falling into the trap he condemns, of criticising people with views that differ from mine as uneducated or stupid. In doing so, I make myself part of the, or at least his, problem.

It’s bad enough not to be able to challenge Birmingham, worse when he anticipates counter-arguments, because it makes his self-righteousness feel even more intact. In one moment my head seethed that he wasn’t considering the impact of British colonialism: the next he declared that absolutely he would apologise for colonial oppression – if in India. In another I raged that he was holding Asian people in the UK to account for their separatism, but not Brits abroad: the next he spat that the Brits in Spain who read English-language newspapers and keep to their own are disgraceful. I felt outmanoeuvred by him. And, like Shabazz, reached a point of just wanting to scream: “Fuck off!”

I’m aware that I’m ranting, and it’s because Putting Words in Your Mouth makes you want to argue. There’s a silent question at play here – at play whenever anyone writes about theatre – who is you? Whose mouth exactly is Scottee putting words into? Because clearly it’s not just those of his lip-syncing performers.

More and more I wanted to know: what do they think? It’s intimated in the effort it takes to stop their bodies slumping with the weight of the recorded words, but what might they say if given space to speak? Scottee eventually, and brilliantly, affords them a brief opportunity: towards the end their mouths fall still and three different voices emerge from the audio track, lively yet resigned. Racism is prevalent in all white queer communities, says one. I didn’t know what racism was like until I came out, says another. I hadn’t seen Shabazz’s or Travis Alabanza’s solo work before, but I have seen Jamal Gerald’s FadoubleGOT, in which he talks candidly of how homophobic abuse as a teen transmuted into racism, and the ways in which both poisoned his own mind against him. All three of them have created their own performances which inhabit the same quagmire as Putting Words in Your Mouth: it inclines me to trust that, although vehicles, the trio are not without agency. This is important.

In a post-show event on the night I attended, Shabazz spoke out from the audience about the necessity of trying to understand our compatriots – but the people Shabazz had in mind were not white supremacists, or UKIP members, or disaffected white working-class people: it was queer people of colour struggling to survive the daily experience of living at the intersections of racism, homophobia and sexism. What “progressive minds”, by which I do mean white middle-class liberal minds in the mainstream media, are not just demanding that conversation but having it? I write this having just read a new column published in the Guardian on Thursday 1 December, written by a British gay Muslim man, on this very subject; I’m sure there are many others, and that doesn’t dissuade me from asking. That column came a few days after one by Owen Jones, also published in the Guardian, coincidentally on the day I saw Putting Words in Your Mouth, which began with the words: “Racism is a serious problem within the LGBT community and needs to be addressed.” To Jones’ credit he was careful to quote first-hand evidence of this from men of different nationalities, ethnicities and skin tones. What Jones didn’t do, however, was take the time to mention that Scottee had made an entire show on this subject. Which is odd. Sure, the last thing “progressive minds” want at the moment is to open themselves up to the easy accusation of living in an echo chamber. But if even a relatively small community cannot recognise and support the activities of like-minded people, what hope is there of their work attaining a wider reach?

Even if the likes of Jones and Turner aren’t acknowledging it (and I’ve been stalking their timelines: still neither appear to have seen it), Putting Words in Your Mouth is undoubtedly the show of our times; as Matt Trueman described it, “As important a piece of performance as there’s been this year.” It is vital, uneasy, excoriating, demanding: the zeitgeist distilled into a single hour. But, speaking absolutely personally, it’s also the wrong show – or at least, not the one I want to see. I want the opposite show: the one in which white men, white gay men, white working-class gay men, have to lip-sync the words of queer and/or female working-class people of colour, words that undermine racism rather than support it, and for them to do so not with condemnation but respect.

This is not a criticism of Scottee: I think Putting Words in Your Mouth is superlative, exactly the right show for himself as an artist, his community and his artform. I think he has been acute in his choice of which voices to use in the show, precise in his juxtaposition of performance styles (verbatim theatre and cabaret lip-sync – Steve Greer writes about this incisively), and achieved exactly the effect a work like this should: made people want to speak, and contribute actively to a movement for change. But I also think that the attitudes of the men Scottee interviewed are not so unknown or misunderstood as people such as Turner are implying. In a blog post published the same day as Scottee’s official press night, Andrew Haydon created a “manifesto for post-Trump theatre” making exactly this point, refuting the idea that people “on the left” (his quotation marks, actually) “live in an echo chamber” (ditto), and stating with devastating clarity that: “actually: a) we do know what their [right-wing] arguments are, and b) We’ve. Rejected. Their. Arguments. Because They. Are. Wrong.”

Haydon’s we, unlike many, extends pretty wide, in that black radical writers and activists have been rejecting white supremacy for decades. I’m in the process of reading bell hooks’ essay collection Killing Rage: Ending Racism, in the introduction of which she writes:

“In many ways race talk surfaces as the vernacular discourse of white supremacy. It repeatedly tells us that blacks are inferior to whites, more likely to commit crimes, come from broken homes, are all on welfare… Even when we win literary prizes it lets the world know that up in the big house folks are not really sure that judging was fair, or the writin that good. … Meanwhile back at the plantation, [a white author] … states: ‘But Racism is real. … It goes beyond prejudice and discrimination and even transcends bigotry, largely because it arises from outlooks and assumptions of which we are largely unaware.’ The ‘we’ of unaware does not include black people. We do not have the luxury to be unaware.”

Out of context, you could imagine that hooks wrote those words in early November, around Trump’s election, or perhaps in September, when Private Eye complained about a Caribbean writer winning the Forward prize. In fact, Killing Rage: Ending Racism was first published in 1995, and its thinking reaches back two decades earlier. At what point do “we” actually start paying attention to those voices? At what point do “we” actually follow their recommendations for ending not just racism but, in hooks’ construction, “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”?

Here’s something else I’ve read in the week it’s taken me to process my response to Scottee’s show. It’s from the chapter on empire in Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, in which it’s briefly explained how Hernan Cortes devastated the Aztec empire through trickery and exploitation of a frustrated populace. Native Mexicans might have survived, Harari suggests, if they had only paid attention to the fate of other subjugated peoples elsewhere in Spanish colonies: the native populations of the Caribbean who suffered and died at white men’s hands. A decade later, Francisco Pizarro followed Cortes’ example with the Inca empire, who might have survived if only they’d communicated with the Aztecs. Harari’s point is that human society doesn’t progress positively, and protect itself from its most destructive elements, by listening to those in power. It does this by listening to the powerless. Just as Shabazz said, in a moment post-show when few could hear him.

Before sending this to Exeunt, I sent it to Scottee to read through, because I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t misattributing quotes to the three interviewees. Replying, Scottee reminded me that: “In the eyes and bodies of the voices heard in the show they are the powerless, they are the ones who are not heard, sidelined (even within EDL and UKIP). They are poor, they are working class (Manchester isn’t as well off as he presents). They live in minority majority cities when they are the ethnic minority. It’s tacky, clumsy and I disagree with it but … it’s their truth.” It has given me pause, because I thought I was acknowledging this, and if that hasn’t come across, then I’ve not done that well enough. I mention it because I believe that being open and honest about the fallibilities of one’s judgement is integral to the positive social change I want to see. Scottee is right: how white men express racism generally is something I know: how white working-class gay men specifically express racism, isn’t. Do I want to know about it? No. Am I spitting and hissing at the indignity of being subjected to it? Yes. Is that an appropriate position for theatre criticism to occupy? You decide.

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Maddy Costa

Maddy Costa writes about theatre and music, as much as possible at the same time. Preferably with a recipe included. An occasional contributor to the Guardian, she found one blog (Deliq) wasn't enough, so now co-hosts four. She is critical writer, or critic in residence, or embedded critic, with Chris Goode & Company; through her work with them, and with Dialogue, the organisation she co-founded with Jake Orr, she is attempting to rethink the relationship between people who make, watch and write about theatre. At least once a week she decides she should stop writing about theatre and do something more useful instead.

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