I have been thinking a lot about post-colonial theatre.
I have been thinking a lot about post-colonial theatre and I have been wondering how much it can feasibly do.
(These thoughts are inevitably, always tied into thoughts about theatre and its actual, ya know, purpose)
I have been thinking a lot about the term “post-colonial theatre” and I have been constantly, spikily angry with the narrowness of those three words.
Jamaica Kincaid’s text, painstakingly condensed and adapted by Anna Himali Howard and Season Butler, is peppered with thorny, relentless “You”s. The onus is not on performers Nicola Alexis or Cherelle Skeete. It’s on you. (Me?)
Howard directs with a light touch, emphasising and embracing the humour which is soaked throughout Kincaid’s text, giving the piece this playfulness which ultimately comes around and knocks you on the head for laughing too readily. The piece goes on, the stakes are incrementally raised, the West’s exploitation of Antigua warps Howard’s direction into a nightmare, heads popping out of podiums, TVs switching on and playing inverted versions of Beauty and the Beast. The intent is razor sharp and you can feel the rigour of Season Butler’s dramaturgy. Not one moment feels extraneous.
The thing you have always suspected about yourself the minute you become a tourist is true: a tourist is an ugly human being.
(This all feels very knotty to me and I hope you’ll hear me out)
The story of Antigua can’t be told without discussing the white people and industries which exploited the island.
But then how do you tell the story of Antigua without completely centring that whiteness (as justified as the anger of the Antiguans is)?
How do you do justice to the Antiguan story when whiteness and Western-ness are constantly shrouding it?
Skeete and Alexis oscillate between disdain and pain and pride. There’s a lot of eye contact with the audience. The lights, more often than not, are up. We’re seated in Camilla Clarke’s labyrinthine airport waiting room and we have to crane our heads to see them perform – we aren’t just automatically given easy access to these performers. We have to work for it.
There’s a moment where a long piece of red string is passed from performer to audience member, back to performer, then to another audience member, until the entire theatre is a spider’s web of complicity and guilt. It’s a neat, smart idea in a piece of theatre which so often grapples with the convolutions of colonial repercussions.
The Gate has recently shown an immense understanding of what it means for a theatre to be placed in a certain location. Jude Christian did it with Trust, and Howard deepens it further. Notting Hill is a strange place, one of the first places in London I think of when I think of gentrification and inequality in our capital city – those enormous, gleaming white townhouses around Portobello Road, juxtaposed against Grenfell Tower, hastily cloaked in a green heart and white covering but unable to be fully hidden away, out of public consciousness. Howard has an acute understanding of this area’s dual-consciousness, and she pitches the level of humour and anger just right in Skeete and Alexis’ performances.
But something doesn’t sit quite right with me. I feel like there’s a limit to post-colonial theatre (whatever that even fucking means, I don’t know, there has to be a better term for it that doesn’t make it feel like I’m shoehorning works as different as Misty and A Small Place into the same category) – I don’t know where it goes from here. Anger is good. Anger is the only correct response to inequality and injustice. I want more anger but I also want there to be a point where artists of colour don’t have to be angry anymore and don’t have to make work continually leading white audiences through the injustices heaped upon them. But I also don’t want to police what artists of colour feel is most important for them to make. I honestly don’t know what I think. I think A Small Place is skilfully and carefully made, but I also wonder what Howard is going to do next.
Does that make sense?
A Small Place is on at the Gate Theatre until 1st December. More info here.