There’s a page in Claudia Rankine’s beyond-superlatives book Citizen that features a series of unfinished sentences each beginning with the words “In memory of”. For much of the page those words are followed by a name: Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland… The names begin to fade, then disappear altogether, but the words “In memory” continue, also fading into white. Opposite that page, suspended in blankness, are Citizen’s most quotable and known words:
because white men can’t
police their imagination
black men are dying
Citizen was first published on 7 October 2014. Less than a fortnight later, black teenager Laquan McDonald was shot dead by a white policeman in Chicago. Laquan’s name is one of those invisible in the faded text of Citizen, one of the many murders Rankine knew was still to come.
Laquan’s name is also invoked by Josette Bushell-Mingo in her conversation with/séance to conjure up the firebrand spirit of Nina Simone. She glares at her mostly white audience, knowing that for many in the room this could be the first time they have heard Laquan’s name. (Apologies to my fellow audience members if the only shame-filled ignoramus that night was me.) She stamps her foot, hard as she can, each thump ringing out like a gun shot. Counting them off: one for every time Laquan was shot at point-blank range. Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. The sound ricocheting across held breath.
“How the fuck,” she demands, eyes glittering with rage, “did we come to a time where we have to say Black Lives Matter?”
A friend to me: “If you’re white, and you’re going to see a play called An Octoroon, you have to ask yourself why.”
I went to see An Octoroon because white people on twitter raved about it. Within seconds of it starting I realised it was addressing White Theatreland, and although there were people of colour in the room, to that address they were effectively invisible. Later in the play an image is projected on stage of a lynching: the implication is that this is still what’s going on, and we in the room are responsible for it; which is a thorny implication to make when there are people of colour in the room. It’s where the play begins to address Black Lives Matter, I told the same friend excitedly, and to demand of white people an acknowledgement of responsibility. “That’s not in there,” the friend retorted. “That’s something you’re bringing to it – it’s not in there at all.”
Bushell-Mingo sees every single person of colour in her audience. She addresses them individually, as sir and ma’am; includes one person in their number honorarily, because “you look foreign”. I am foreign by parentage, but on the outside I’m white. It’s taking me a long time to face up to the responsibility of that.
At Lovebox festival in London, the week before seeing Nina.
Flinching at the white people singing along to F.U.B.U by Solange.
And the white people singing along with Frank Ocean the lines from Nikes: “RIP Trayvon, [he] look just like me”.
Ta-Nehisi Coates in a public letter to his 15-year-old son: “you understand that there is no real difference between yourself and Trayvon Martin, and thus Trayvon Martin must terrify you in a way that he could never terrify me”.
Bushell-Mingo first encountered Nina Simone as a child watching television: what she saw – although she might not phrase it quite like this – was that there was no real difference between them, especially compared with the Minstrels she was more used to seeing. At moments in the show, when she sings Feeling Good, or Ain’t Got No (I Got Life), it’s a struggle to spot the difference between them now. “I’m her understudy,” Bushell-Mingo says, with well-placed pride.
Her love and admiration for Simone are never in question, but nor is her show simple hagiography. What radiates from Bushell-Mingo is anger, and more than that hurt: that society, history, people, white people, have failed Simone and her generation; and that Simone gave her the hope of revolution, when it’s in the nature of matter revolving to turn full circle and end up back where it started.
Ta-Nehisi Coates on Malcolm X: “He was unconcerned with making the people who believed they were white comfortable in their belief. If he was angry, he said so. If he hated, he hated because it was human for the enslaved to hate the enslaver, natural as Prometheus hating the birds. He would not turn the other cheek for you. He would not be a better man for you. He would not be your morality.”
Try it again, changing the pronoun to she.
If you’re white and going to see a play called Nina, by a black woman about her relationship with another black woman, maybe you ought to ask yourself why.
Maybe you ought to remember how few works by black women, about black women, for black women, make it to the British stage.
Maybe you ought to wonder whether there was a black woman who wasn’t able to get a ticket for this show because you already took that seat.
You should definitely go see it, but you could ask yourself what you’re expecting to see.
And whether you’re willing to look down the barrel of a gun to see it.
Nina begins in celebratory mode: Bushell-Mingo with natural hair (a wig she soon discards as a costume of revolution, revealing her own salt-sprinkled crop), glowing amid three phenomenal musicians, shimmying, feeding off the bounding, joyful rhythm to call up visions of Nina in 1969, playing to a crowd of rapturous faces in Harlem. But what is there, in 2017, to celebrate?
Chimene Suleyman on twitter, 16 July 2017: “Like, here’s the thing, Jodie Whittaker is brilliant, I’m a fan and she’s a cool choice. But this Dr Who casting is not radical. Moving from well-spoken whiteness, to well-spoken whiteness is not revolutionary or ground-breaking at all. I ain’t cussing out the choice, yougetme, I’m more perplexed by the OMG LOOK HOW FAR WE’VE COME response to it. White women have been a pretty venerated part of every community for some time now. Sadly even in communities of colour. Allow it even being a woman of colour, for a minute. Radical would have been a visibly Muslim man. Or a black man without an English accent. And I aint saying it SHOULD have been. Im saying watch what you out there applauding like whiteness ain’t the default no matter what gender.”
Did your heart sink or soar when you read this?
Be truthful now.
And is it the Nina of My Baby Just Cares for Me you’re looking for?
Or the Nina of Mississippi Goddam?
A friend to me: why is it that so much theatre is an experience of discomfort at best, most likely pain and trauma, for black people? Either the work renders black people invisible (An Octoroon) or it details the pain and trauma of black lives in white supremacy.
Nina is that latter work. What feels unusual about it to me – and bear in mind that my white gaze, however foreign its background, skews everything I see – is the way in which Bushell-Mingo anticipates and stares out the white gaze that faces her. The ways in which she makes demands of it, holds up a mirror to it, locates it in places it doesn’t want to see itself at all. Gazing from the eyes of a policeman brandishing a gun, for instance.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: “The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight. This is the practised habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands. To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning towards something murkier and unknown.”
In the four days between seeing Nina and sitting down to write this, a white man on twitter has claimed that “The British (1707 on) were almost always the Good Guys” and a 20-year-old black man called Rashan Charles has died in Dalston, London – where I grew up amid stories of police violence against black men, brothers, uncles, fathers – following a police chase.
Try reading that quote thinking not of America, but Britain.
“Everybody knows about Mississippi,” Bushell-Mingo chants. “Everybody knows about Ferguson. Everybody knows about Brixton. GOD DAMN.”
A few pages earlier in Citizen, Rankine recalls attending a party in London – the story might be fact or fiction, it hardly matters – and talking to another writer, male, about the 2011 riots in Hackney that followed the shooting of Mark Duggan by police.
“Will you write about Duggan? the man wants to know. Why don’t you? you ask. Me? he asks, looking slightly irritated.
How difficult is it for one body to feel the injustice wheeled at another? Are the tensions, the recognitions, the disappointments, and the failures that exploded in the riots too foreign?”
Rankine doesn’t ask this of the man. She asks it of her reader. Her white reader specifically.
Bushell-Mingo wants her white audience to feel what she is already feeling, day in, day out, as black men and women are killed by social systems that claim the name of justice and purport to protect. She draws her white audience into all the negativity that is projected on to blackness and asks them to sit there a while. Then, and only then, will she hand over the gift of the songs of Nina Simone.
Implicit in Nina is a question of responsibility. What responsibility are you, you there with the white gaze, actually taking? What are you doing to bring about the revolution that won’t wheel back to the beginning? What are you doing to support freedom – freedom for everyone, freedom from fear? Who are you listening to? How are you speaking? And when are you silent?
“Every civil rights law,” says Bushell-Mingo, “was passed for white people.”
In memory of Edson Da Costa
Another sentence, and life, unfinished.
He and I share a name, but not a skin colour.
No real difference between us, and all the difference in the world.
Nina is on at the Young Vic until 29 July 2017. Click here for more details.