1. Dawn chorus: fluttering melody, call and response, airborne, of joy
It starts with bodies. Bodies that shake as though an electric current is passing through them, bodies that leap and curve and hurl and run, pounding the floor that shakes with a rumble that passes through every body in the room. Bodies that form a wall and support each other to leap over that wall, bodies that form a murmuration, separating and flocking, bodies that tip up chairs and pile them in a kind of bonfire then push them into position as a barricade. Bodies that kiss and dance and shimmer and kiss and fall to the floor exhausted. Bodies of adolescents, at once children who still delight in playing hide and seek, and adults taking responsibility for the lives they want to lead. Bodies that grow, inside more than out. Bodies that move, are moving, make movement, form a movement. Bodies whose presence in this room should not be taken for granted.
2. Percussion: beatbox, keeping rhythm, keeping time
There are 15 young people in the room, representatives of thousands, who occupied more than 200 schools in São Paolo in 2015 and 2016 in protest at threatened school closures and other educational injustices. They are a mass, a movement, but they are also individuals: one of them likes to do the splits, one of them likes to jump the barriers, one of them likes condensed milk. One of them wears a T-shirt reading “The slavery and colonial era never ended in Brasil”, one of them needs to remind the others that when the police come, the first person to be arrested will be black. They are individuals learning how to work together, and a gentle bickering travels round the room as they reach decisions by consensus about how to go about the occupation: how to stay safe, how to feed everyone. Everyone groans at the cleaning routine.
3. Echo: the report of thunder after lightning has flashed
This is not a story: this is real. The photographs they pass around, their faces covered in balaclavas, or grinning on chaotic streets: real. The video projected on the back wall of the Council Chamber at Battersea Arts Centre – a room of civic process, the perfect venue – showing their actual bodies walking, chanting, protesting: real. But this is also not a documentary, and nor is it a linear narrative, and it communicates as much through feeling and senses – the vibration of voice and pounding foot, the intoxication of music, the heat of skin, the smell of sweat – as it does through language. Little is said of the political outcomes of the occupation, but those too were real: initially positive, with the restructuring of São Paolo schools suspended and the exposure of financial corruption in the state school system; eventually negative, thwarted by an aggressively conservative counter-protest movement and police violence.
The fresh blood they see at the protest: real. The fear that the first person to be arrested would be black: real. The assurance given at the start of the performance, “we will stay alive”: real.
4. Repetition: a voice from the past, returned fresh, appropriated as a ceaseless refrain
assault assault assault assault assault assault assault assault assault assault assault assault assault assault assault assault assault assault assault THE LAW!
5. Bass: the low note of sorrow, wild and wordless keening
For hours afterwards there’s a heavy feeling in my body that I’m struggling to name or account for. Because the work itself is radiant, generous, loving, vibrant – not so much good as goodness embodied. Is it frustration that this isn’t really the thing (a protest, an occupation), but a representation of the thing (innocuous, an entertainment)? Is it discomfort at the dynamics of theatre (most of the performers are people of colour but most of the audience are white)? Is it jealousy (we divide into small groups and two performers show photographs of themselves five or six years ago, before the occupation, and talk about how they changed through this political engagement, became more themselves, but also found a community, this community, this camaraderie of courage)? Is it disappointment? (Why finish the show in the blocked off street beside the theatre, as though this gathering were a dead end? Why not take us really on to the street, block the traffic for a few minutes, risk everything?) Is it despair: because we know how this story ends, it ends in the election of Jair Bolsonaro – but if they’re not disheartened, what right do I have to be?
These thoughts turn over and over in my mind and slowly I realise, the feeling is sadness: not at what could or should or might have been but what was. The necessity of the protest, the neglect of these lives, typical of what one of the performers describes as the ongoing genocide of black people in Brazil. “All we wanted during the occupation was for school to have meaning,” says one of the performers: and they don’t just mean school, they mean their whole lives. They describe the conditions in school very briefly: they lack literally everything, from space to pencils to food. I hate that this is the world we’re living in. When It Breaks It Burns is a party, sure, but what ignites it is a sense of injustice, an injustice that is global and pervasive.
6. Harmony: stories that chime, a series of counterpoints
I think of Breach Theatre’s first show, The Beanfield, in particular a video of police using CS gas against students at University of Warwick protesting the rise in tuition fees and corporate takeover of further education. I think of Anna Deavere Smith performing Notes From the Field at the Royal Court, constructed in part from verbatim accounts and first-hand videos of police violence in American schools. I think of this article about the links between conservative businessmen and secondary education in the UK, and the Education Not Exclusion and No Lost Causes campaigns started by graduates of Advocacy Academy, whose protests identify a school-to-prison pipeline in the UK. I think of the friend who is working in a primary school in London, and the stories she tells of how children are expected to conform to a narrow set of behavioural expectations and anyone who doesn’t can expect to be disciplined and/or isolated. I think of the social researcher I met through Brighton People’s Theatre, who has amassed years of research into the failure of schools to support children from low-to-no-income families equally, the failure of successive governments to fund schools equally.
“That was excellent!” enthuses a dad (white, middle-class voice) to his beaming teenage son.
I don’t want people to be entertained by When It Breaks It Burns. I want them to be enraged and I want them to be galvanised.
7. Unison: the same note, hummed together, voices rising and falling, taking breath and giving, sustaining the note, enduring
The performers unroll a long sheet of foil-backed canvas and scatter it with crayons. Can you give me a word to describe the occupation? Freedom. Can you give me a word to describe the occupation? Protest. Can you give me a word to describe the occupation? Courage. The words are scrawled on to the canvas, members of the audience are given crayons to write on it too. There are jars of fluorescent face paint and they dip in their fingers and daub it on to each other’s cheeks and noses then do the same to the audience. One protest, one struggle. They lift the canvas and hold it in front of their bodies and step back to one side of the room. Now some of the audience are facing them and some of the audience are behind, behind the performers, behind the canvas, and we are part of the protest, we are part of the group, their fight is our fight, their lives lead our lives, and it’s up to us to close the distance, to make community, to change. It’s time.
When It Breaks It Burns is on at Battersea Arts Centre till 29th February. More info here.