How much debate is too much debate? When it comes to racism (and how it intersects with sexism) and Islamophobia, what more exploration needs to happen? And by whom? It was these questions that I kept returning to as I watched the three theatrical shorts, A Coin in Somebody Else’s Pocket, RE: Exhibit and Safe, part of Tools for Change, described by Traverse theatre as digital reimaginings of three plays from the Theatre Uncut archive that explore racism, censorship, power and identity.
Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan’s play, A Coin in Somebody Else’s Pocket was the standout piece, a deceptively simple piece of theatre that succeeds in challenging and entertaining its audience. The opening line “So, they asked me to write a play” is used by Manzoor-Khan as a hook to question why it is that she, a woman often described as “vocal, or outspoken or unapologetic” has been asked to write a play. Manzoor-Khan proceeds to explore the box that she is placed in as a woman, a hijab-wearing Muslim woman. Manzoor-Khan spends most of the play speaking from inside a thick black box; it’s a seemingly obvious metaphor, but dig deeper and a greater complexity is there. The majority of the play has a split screen with Manzoor-Khan on the right-hand side, with images of suburban life, pelican crosses, manicured lawns and semi-detached houses opposite her. The images on the left are not usually associated with Muslim women, but, as Manzoor-Khan says, “there’s more two ways to be a Muslim woman, there’s more than three or four, there’s infinite: we are infinite.” And that is the brilliance of this piece of art. Manzoor-Khan has been asked to write a play that explores racism because she is an “outspoken Muslim woman” and instead uses it to argue for the need for more stories, stories that feature Muslims but don’t have to centre faith or race. “If you spend all of your time disproving stereotypes” Manzoor-Khan opines, “aren’t you then also sort of relying on them?” That she has the courage to ask that of an ambiguous “they”, which I choose to interpret as the kind of theatre company that would commission such a piece, is gutsy. It’s also brilliant.
RE: Exhibit is Gbolahan Obisesan’s artistic response to protests against the production Exhibit B [more information in this Guardian article]. On first watch, it felt a little too didactic to be entertaining. Joyce Omotola plays an actor who gradually realises that she is auditioning for the role of a person in a human zoo; her rising anger is finely-crafted, but it felt unnecessary when Eva Jane Willis’s Producer is so monochromatic (it is a wonderfully evil response when the producer is told that the exhibition is racist and responds immediately “to who?”). On second viewing, there is more nuance to the piece, best shown through the choice to have the Producer be a heavily pregnant white woman. As a symbol, a pregnant woman garners sympathy, and whiteness in society is often elevated. To then have that character be so racially insensitive is a masterstroke, forcing a dissonance in the audience. From the way she describes the actors as “exhibits” and tells Omotola that she “speaks very well” and frames people that would find her views objectionable as “having a chip on their shoulder”, the Producer feels like she is playing a subtle game of racist dog-whistle bingo. But that nuance feels lost when the characters themselves are such opposites. It is, dare I say, a little too black and white to have the impact that it otherwise could have.
Safe, by Niellah Arboine, tracks a young black woman who is searching for a safe space to exist on the internet. A young woman that is tired of the impossible tightrope walk that she has to navigate to be “acceptable”. Arboine frames the screen beautifully, with the characters talking to camera as if it was a multi-person video call. HER, the central character, is central, and the other character’s images pressing in around her face as they make it clear what she needs to do and, just as importantly, not do, in order to exist in peace. Arboine’s dialogue features all the arguments that are used to gaslight people of colour when they speak out. Arboine has nailed the difficulties that black women face, whether it’s cries of “political correctness gone wild”, or a white woman saying “I think I feel attacked”, a line that has taken on more power in 2020, following multiple viral videos of white women in America calling the police on black people for committing crimes such as walking their dogs or living in close proximity to them.
Safe works as a piece of theatre because HER is having to defend herself against everyone, including men of colour, women of colour – as well as white men and women. HER plaintively tells another woman of colour “you’re meant to be on my side”, in a moment that’s disturbingly effective, and hints at the colourism issue that too often goes on unspoken in many communities. It works because it demonstrates that for black women, no space is truly safe and merely asking for space is seen as a threat.
There is a certain irony that these three pieces of theatre have been made in 2020, when so many public spaces are dangerous for other reasons. Manzoor-Khan finds safety and a kind of liberation inside a box, even though it’s one she wants to escape. The actor in RE:Exhibit has to argue why the box that the Producer wants to put her in is so damaging. And HER cannot find safety, even in the box of online space. In different ways and with varying levels of success, these three pieces offer biting metaphors for marginalised women in 2020; trapped in boxes that don’t fit and wanting to escape into a world that, in a very real way, is dangerous for them.
Tools for Change is available until Saturday 28th November 2020, on a pay what you can basis, via Traverse Theatre’s website. More info here.