“You called, and we came.”
There’s so much to mourn of this year’s Windrush scandal: wrongful detention, threats of deportation, the complete stripping of legal rights. It all sounds so dry when the news reports it- around 63 cases of wrongful deportation. Cases, not humans. Let alone taking into account that the Windrush generation, a wave of Caribbean migrants who travelled to the UK, were doing so in a post-war effort to help.
“You called, and we came.”
In an immigration boom it’s not the immigrants themselves who should be penned into a narrative of being aliens in a foreign land. It’s “we” who came – and what a celebration of the development in black British culture from the last seventy years in Phoenix Dance Theatre’s Windrush: Movement of the People.
Sharon Watson’s first narrative dance piece, Windrush initiates its movement in the Caribbean itself: the ensemble weave in and out of the crates lining the stage, leaving their fully formed communities to embark on a new life. Christella Litras’ passion-filled score brings the heat from Luke Haywood’s lighting design to our seats: here are fully formed lives, moving en masse out of a sense of duty to a motherland they’ve never seen. Contrast with a dimly lit Britain, the cast hugging their thin coats a bit tighter. With all qualifications diminished and few invitations of housing, movement is the only power that the Windrush generation have.
Eleanor Bull’s set design neatly explores the opposition to freedom of movement within the UK, washing lines of bigoted housewives literally entangling characters and restricting black people from entering the home. At first, the lettered laundry threatens to be on the nose, but against the backdrop of Enoch Powell’s harsh words it fully integrates how everyday and commonplace these racist attitudes were. Bull makes the neat costume point of masking white characters. Instantly it’s these racists and reluctant hosts who are othered, not the black people who we’ve followed from the start. (“You called, and we came.”)
The way the masks are overcome is through the movement of integration. Music of black origin, interracial relationships, working friendships. The inclusion of an altar against Mary Mary’s cover of “Amazing Grace” brings home the incredible feat of faith required in arriving to a new country. Faith also manifests itself in the relationship between lovers played by Prentice Whitlow and Vanessa Vince-Pang. The couple’s reunion as Vince-Pang arrives belatedly in the UK is an absolute show-stealer. Carrying a ton of emotional weight, the two move incredibly gracefully with the quick familiarity that invokes the pair’s long-standing chemistry. It’s such a tender and romantic moment that it could pass for a first dance of sorts.
Watson also allows for the antithesis of movement. It seems ironic that in a dance show a moment of stillness would hit me but it really does: the final moment after Whitlow’s character has assembled his pokey flat, he sinks into the worn-down sofa cushions. After the toil of hauling furniture and making a new life, that fluidity of surrendering to a moment of peace: cramped into the corner of the stage, it signifies the founding of a multi-cultural Britain against all odds.
The show ends in an uplifting piece of celebration. The ensemble dance freely about the stage, no longer confined to a small segment, and out of sight from judgement. They’re here. We called, and they came. Phoenix have created one of those affirming pieces, a call for joy in solidarity. Sure, it’s incredibly positive in the face of those scandalous headlines, but it’s an injection of faith in diversity which we need now more than ever.
Windrush: Movement of the People was on at York Theatre Royal from 1-2 November. It is touring through November. More info here.