This music could destroy the National Front.
To beat the Nazis we just have to dance.
Out of context, these are glib statements in a world that feels as though it’s self-destructing before our eyes. Where the National Front is rising under its new guises, and where those in power see them as useful distractions from the violence of their own legislative (in)action. But then, the late 70s and early 80s were a different time, and Rock Against Racism (RAR) really did see music as a unifying front line against fascism.
In Rebel Music Denise (Lauren Foster), 17 years old, smiles down upon the club night she’s organised in Birmingham, her first RAR protest. Her mum is white English and her dad is Jamaican. Her best friend Trudi (Hannah Millward) is a white Irish skinhead she’s brought in to DJ. With the The Specials playing the bill, unveiling the Ska Punk fusion known as 2 Tone, the multicultural equality is in full flow. Racism will be gone for good. They dance. We’re encouraged to get up and dance with them.
We watch through the glaze of idealism inherent in a teenager’s political awakening. There’s a sheen to the whole story, a heightened saturation that keeps us in the world of fiction, albeit a fictionalisation of fact. Riding the wave of Denise and Trudi’s fizzing singing-and-dancing narration, we see and feel how this all could have made sense. It’s clear that co-creators Robin French and Alex Brown chose this story as a vector, an intersection of important (dare I say ‘relevant’) socio-cultural conversations. Conversations that are too weighty to be had in the nuance-devouring world of Twitter, but which used to unfold in surprisingly straightforward terms relative to their true complexity. Perhaps the more blatantly abhorrent the racism, the easier simplicity comes.
The play uses hit songs from the ’70s and ’80s, performed with altered lyrics, to serve as heightened narration. These are effective as spikes in energy, but they’re restricted in the tonal nuance they can offer because, regardless of lyrical content, the music retains the bouncing upbeat of the era. A gorgeous performance by shape-shifting singing Nathan Queely-Dennis propels the piece, moving us through years and locations. His lengthy monologue as the black RAR punk Andrew injects contrasting stillness, weaving historical events of the 1978 RAR march documentary-style inside the tale of his spiritual naissance as a punk. The pacing and lyricism are masterful.
I see older white men and women nodding along, mouthing words, singing. I’m reluctant to prescribe an audience for any piece of theatre, but this play doesn’t do its most crunchy work on someone of my generation. Surely those who lived through this time, fertilised by this music, can’t help but feel guilt. Activism might be perceived as a young person’s game, but no one believes that racism and bigotry has an age limit. The middle-aged English nationalists currently defending ‘Britishness’ lived through this era. Why and when did the other side stop Rocking Against?
Racism is a white person’s problem and it’s up to the white people to fix it. This line slices through with bloodless precision. It’s not so confrontational as to result in a ‘Yeah that’s not me though’ or ‘I feel attacked’, nor can it provoke those vacuous tuts of othering you’ll hear from people who are definitely-not-racist when racism is acted out on stage. This is close to the most effective calling out of Whiteness I’ve experienced in theatre. A simple statement that this is work, and it is not a Black person’s responsibility to shoulder it. No wonder this notion sticks to Denise and returns in her most heated moment with Trudi, when their mutually supportive friendship is finally pushed to breaking point. Denise is all ideologically confident poise, and Trudi is all ideologically questioning unease. Both of them are right, in a way. The problem is not that this is a fact, but that it is a problem.
The stage fills with physical symbols. The vinyls, pristine or cracked. The magazines – Melody Maker, Bulldog. Clothes and hair. All standing for something more than themselves. Even Trudi’s older brother Dudley, whose vinyls usher the girls towards new kinds of music and whose personal journey tracks the co-opting of skinhead culture by fascism, is symbolic, a presence only spoken of. His general radicalisation is undeniably believable, but his shifts and reversions make him feel more like a device than a youth led astray.
It’s hard to imagine a group of music-lovers uniting to fight against anything right now, let alone a reality as vile, violent and insidiously intangible as Racism. But then I’ve watched the archetype of a music fan shift enormously in the last 10 years. The visible markers of fandom of wardrobe, hair styling and lapel-pinning have been replaced by something more compartmentalised; meme-creating online stanning, directly in conversation with musical idols. This fandom is far less outwardly visible, where previously, adherence to a musical movement was self-referential, and inextricably political.
Strikingly, the final moments of the play do the most effective emotional work. Now middle-aged Trudi and Denise see their very different paths. An answer to ‘Why and when did the other side stop Rocking Against?’ seems nestled within their final exchange, tense and tender sparring, political and physical darkness surrounding them. Combining entertainment, art and activism is the holy grail, particularly for the theatrical era we find ourselves in. I’m stubbornly left wishing to transcend the saturation. But as a trigger for conversation and reflection, this is rich and fertile ground.
Also, how come Eric Clapton isn’t cancelled?
Rebel Music runs at Birmingham Rep until 5th October. More info here.