There’s a glitch in the system. The bass is already thumping hard but the musicians seem concerned. They stand over a console that looks like it has the potential to launch light aircraft. The stage manager hovers. We might not go up on time.
As it happens, we do. The sound desk is tamed, and cranked up to eleven in Rachael Young’s pulsating new show at Camden People’s Theatre. Together with her “badass band of superhumans” Nightclubbing weaves together the cult of Grace Jones with the story of three women of colour who were refused entry to a nightclub a few years back.
In the beginning, Young emerges from an asteroid. Rising out of black rock, hand first, grasping for life, she introduces us to Grace Jones – born in Jamaica, under a “leatherette star.” The show’s title is borrowed from the 1981 album which changed the face of popular music after Jones had already conquered the fashion world.
Young then approaches a hanging microphone, takes a hula-hoop, and invites us to watch. But this isn’t the spectacle of Slave To The Rhythm 2012. Instead, Young’s hands are raised in submission, and the hoop keeps falling. Time and again she picks it up to start again, time and again apologising for herself. I’m sorry for breathing. I’m sorry for my features. I’m sorry for moving in next door.
Meanwhile, we hear the recorded testimony of three women who watch as the club owner stalks the queue, assessing how good looking the punters are tonight. Deciding whether he will let them in.
The three women are used to being looked at. They’re not naïve. They recognise the sideways glances, how people clutch their bags when they walk past. In response, they’ve equipped themselves with an arsenal of verbal comebacks, and an instinct for when to stay silent. Knowledge is power. And they’ve read their Audre Lorde and Zadie Smith and Octavia Butler. But nothing will get you into that club if the owner doesn’t like your face.
The show is partly about visibility. Grace Jones is one of the most recognisable faces in modern music, following a modelling career that took her to New York and Paris, and saw her depicted on the covers of Elle and Vogue. But it’s also about the black faces that so rarely grace the covers of magazines or get included in the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations. Its about the faces that are more often passed over, or singled out.
Young shapeshifts through the show. She rises, speaks, sings, rages, and falls silent. In this world where we have the endless capacity to change who we are, and what we look like, adopting avatars, and alter egos. Many still find themselves apologising.
Young explores these two stories through the prism of Afrofuturism. A cultural movement which doesn’t so much seek to resolve oppression in our time, but strives instead to create a new world in a sci-fi future where the ‘other’ is all powerful. Where apology is obsolete, and acceptance and reverence the norm. Like a malevolent super computer, race, religion, and gender can all be hacked, decoded, and redesigned to elevate rather than oppress.
For Janelle Monae, dance is an act of rebellion and escape. Young’s superpower is defiance. She has made it her technology. It radiates from a white-hot centre, as she stands before the microphone. With every fibre it resonates. In a rendition of Pull Up To The Bumper she wails, and riots. She clutches her electric cable strands of hair close to her scalp, whipping and spinning with the music. The music shreds and scatters, the heavy reverb beneath us surging to boiling point. The same sensation as a plane taking off. Young is incredible. She is an awe-inspiring presence. The room rumbles because of her. The noise grows, and the walls shake because of her.
She takes the black rock that birthed her, and reverses the material to create her own golden orbit, which dazzles the audience. She begins a litany of black references that grows from the derogatory, to the celebratory, to pure rapture. She is an alchemist, a self-anointed light-catcher.
Then with a fizz, and a spark, the circuit breaks. And the stage snaps to black.
Nightclubbing is on until 12 May 2018 at the Camden People’s Theatre. Click here for more details.