Samskara. A simple word, but a delight to utter with its sibilance and the curiosity it invites. In Indian philosophy, samskaras are mental impressions, recollections, or psychological imprints. According to these schools of thought, every action or intent enacted by an individual leaves a samskara in the deeper structure of their mind. These impressions then sit dormant, waiting to make themselves known in that person’s future life – shaping hidden expectations, or determining that person’s self-worth. This theory of samskara attempts to explain how and why humans remember, and the effect those memories have on a person’s suffering, happiness, and contentment.
It is this prospect that informs writer, director and choreographer Lanre Malaolu’s sharp, intensive script. Undulating between naturalistic dialogue, mesmerising physical storytelling, and genuinely laugh-out-loud moments, Samskara interrogates black masculinity in the 21st century. We are introduced to four generations of black men who are striving to find their place within a world that tells them they must be strong; each carries their own samskaras which push them to interrogate who they are and how they may break the cycles of emotional trauma that have punctuated their lives in different ways.
Malaolu’s characters are expert storytellers, and privilege the audience with openness and honesty about their experiences. When one man takes centre-stage, another will step in to bring the other characters in their story to vibrant life – a wearied mother, a disdainful teacher, a prejudiced street-harasser. This cast is a well-oiled machine that succeeds through teamwork and mutual support, and is well supported from assistant direction by Kirk-Ann Roberts.
Even more impactful than these moments of talking, though, is the way Malaolu thoughtfully and powerfully utilises the unspoken. We are introduced first to Silent Man (Paaliba Abugre) and Drummer (Yahael Camara Onono), whose rhythm intuitively weaves itself into the fabric of the piece, informing and responding to the bodies on stage. Silent Man dances and moves, his chest rising and falling; it feels like a breaking free, as if he is prising open the cage of his chest to reveal the heart underneath. But before long, the cage is snapped shut again by unseen forces. Silent Man performs the very image of masculinity, making his undressed, muscle-bound torso wide and imposing and rigid with tension. It looks exhausting. Indeed, Abugre himself is beaded with sweat from the effort. It’s a comment on the exhaustion that comes from constantly striving and straining to live up to an image that isn’t your own, to an ideal that you don’t believe in. It is silently implied that the others should follow Silent Man’s example – because this is how a black man should be. Throughout, the others work hard to resist this, to go against what’s been laid out for them.
The cast of six function beautifully as an ensemble whilst brimming with talent individually. Abugre is joined by Will Atiomo, Razak Osbman, Oliver Alvin-Winson, and Ntonga Mwanza (particularly watchable as the cocky yet irrefutably charming Young Buck). Each performer holds the audience with strength and emotion, and together they delve into, and then dismantle, stereotypes. We’re told of absent fathers, of long held but misguided beliefs, of learning that maybe mum’s right when she tells you to wash your dishes after using them. Choreography is peppered throughout (Malaolu is assisted by choreographer and dancer Rochea Dyer), and movingly transforms hard-edged moments into something softer. A fight morphs before our eyes into a moment of vulnerability and tenderness; the men holding one another and breathing as one.
Samskara is at once a deliciously joyful and hard-hitting watch. The men talk of feeling ‘invisible yet hyper-visible’, of walking down the street and knowing they ‘will not have right of way’; the piece skewers the societal stereotypes that we place on black men and forces them open so the audience must look at the ugliness that lies inside. Malaolu’s production has certainly left its impression on my memory: a samskara of my own.
SAMSKARA is on at the Yard Theatre till 26th November. More info here.