Deborah Pearson

1996

Originally written for the Guardian.

Deborah Pearson wants to talk about white privilege – a desire the writer and performer recognises is a huge privilege in itself. For people of colour, she suggests, there is an expectation to be conscious of race relations, whereas “if you are white then you can not think about it, and not talk about it, and nobody will necessarily call you out on that”.

In her show at the Yard theatre in London, Made Visible, Pearson makes the choice to discuss these issues. The show is influenced by Peggy McIntosh’s 1988 essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, which lists 50 everyday examples of white privilege (No. 21: “I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group”; No. 32: “My culture gives me little fear about ignoring the perspectives and powers of people of other races”). Made Visible similarly reveals some of the ways in which invisible systems confer privilege on some at the expense of others.

“I don’t know if I really know how to talk about this,” Pearson admits. With the show, she is anxious to join ongoing conversations about racism and privilege in a way that is “productive and useful”, without replicating the same power structures she’s critiquing by taking over the debate. The show stages a conversation between three women – one white, two of Gujarati heritage – sitting on a bench in Victoria Park, east London. The conversation is undercut by interjections that expose the workings of privilege and debate the politics of representation. “The actors swap characters quite a lot and they are constantly complaining about particular forms of appropriation,” Pearson explains. One of the performers, for example, protests against the sari her character is forced to wear, calling out lazy representations of Indian culture. “So it becomes this meta-commentary on the consequences of a white writer approaching this kind of material,” says Pearson.

With its actors frequently disrupting the scene and addressing the audience, the play draws attention to the problematic assumptions we are all too used to seeing on stage, setting up racial and cultural stereotypes in order to undermine and question them. It’s deliberately messy – much like the complex conversations it is responding to. “It needs to be less tidy,” says Pearson, who is still making final tweaks to the script when we speak. “It needs to let the white character off the hook a little bit less.”

The difficult balance for Pearson in the process of writing Made Visible has been between unpacking her own privilege and giving room to other, non-white voices. “There was a draft of the piece where I just gave over the entire ending to different theorists of colour,” she says. “That was really dry and theatrically it didn’t work, but conceptually I know why that’s what I wanted to do, because it’s about using my privilege to amplify other voices.”

While attempts to address racism often focus on political and social institutions, Pearson is clear that “culture is not blameless in this”. If anything, she adds, culture has to answer for the dominant white narratives it reproduces. “I think that as people who work in culture, albeit a very small fringe area of culture, we have to be aware of the fact that we contribute hugely to this discourse,” she says.

These are issues for theatre to confront as a sector. Despite numerous diversity drives, theatre organisations remain overwhelmingly white. Last year the Warwick commission found that black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) workers represent only 6.7% of the workforce in music and performing and visual arts, while Arts Council England reported that 13.7% of those working in its national portfolio organisations in 2014-15 were BAME. “The fact that so few of the people who work professionally in theatre aren’t white is not an issue for people of colour to deal with – that’s an issue for all of us,” says Pearson. “As a white person who’s working in theatre, you have to think about it really carefully and just be aware of the choices that you make in terms of what you see, what you curate, which voices you’re paying attention to.”

In response to racially motivated hate crimes and police violence, novelist Marlon James has argued that being non-racist is not enough. “We need to stop being non and start being anti,” he insists. Pearson agrees that in an unjust, unequal society, staying silent is not an option.

“The easy thing for white people to do is to not talk about it,” says Pearson. “If we don’t talk about it we don’t risk being criticised. But at the same time, if you don’t talk about it then you are complicit in enabling that power structure to continue.”

Photo: Ian Willms.

Lines, Yard Theatre

lines

Originally written for Exeunt.

As I write this, London is awash with little dots of red. Poppies wink in buttonholes and stare up from boxes in train stations. Men and women in uniform, old and young, suddenly seem to be everywhere in the city, eyeballing the naked lapel of my coat. Usually at this time of year I dutifully buy my poppy and pin it to my chest, more routine than anything else. This year, though, I feel uncomfortable and unsure about the ritual of donning this symbol, skirting around the servicemen and women who have appeared on every other street corner.

I feel similarly ambivalent about Lines, the aptly timed new show at The Yard. But then the show itself projects a complex, difficult ambivalence about its subject matter. The title is a reference to army barracks: lines are where soldiers sleep, change, wash. It’s where they do their living and their thinking in between the action of training and conflict. Pamela Carter’s play, informed by her and director Jay Miller’s conversations with soldiers past and present, zooms in on four new recruits, all signed up for different reasons. It probes – without necessarily judging – their motivations, their interactions and the punishing training they undergo.

Crucially, Lines shows these soldiers at the centre of a world in flux. This is the first year in more than a century that British troops are not involved in a conflict somewhere in the world. Meanwhile conflict itself is constantly mutating as a result of technology and terrorism, moving further and further away from the romanticised Hollywood version of war that these men compulsively regurgitate. Away from the army barracks, conceptions of masculinity are changing, and damaging political and economic forces constrict the possibilities for many young men (and women). As each of the characters here acknowledges, there aren’t a lot of other options open to them.

While the premise is straightforward enough, Lines is a complicated and often intentionally confusing 90 minutes. For a start, its perspective is ever-shifting. In the longer first half, we mostly see the interactions – tentative, teasing, macho – between these four very different men as they are drilled into becoming a team. These exchanges, though, are constantly interspersed with the vocalised thoughts of each of the recruits. It’s often unclear – deliberately so, I think – where private reflection ends and group bonding begins. As they prepare for (possible) war, it’s vital that these trainee soldiers form a unit, each always having the others’ backs. And so as the days and weeks slide by, individual identities blur, all becoming absorbed into the group.

There’s also a sense, despite Alex Lowde’s ostensibly naturalistic design of beds and lockers, that we are inside these soldiers’ minds as much as we are in the barracks. We might be stationed in the one place where they rest, but Miller’s production can’t stay still. The frenetic movement – punctuated with blinding bursts of light and the fierce, distorted commands of the corporal, all the while underscored by Josh Grigg and Manni Dee’s throbbing soundtrack – reflects the adrenaline and anxiety of the men’s internal experiences as their training intentionally overwhelms them. The would-be soldiers might be preparing to fight the likes of ISIS, but Lines reveals their coaching as little more than radicalisation of another kind.

The characters themselves are designed to surprise. When we first see them, changing out of civvies and into uniform, they’re an undifferentiated line-up of aggressive masculinity, all strutting and flexing. But as they change and change again (there’s much taking on and off of clothes, an emblem of shifting identities), more facets of their personalities emerge, often subverting what we’ve been taught to expect from military narratives. Not long into training, Tony Clay’s Locke straightforwardly reveals that he’s gay; neat-as-a-pin Valentine (Ncuti Gatwa) explains that he’s here not to get laid and shoot guns, but for God and honour. Meanwhile Robbie O’Neill’s Mackay might have a more stereotypical thirst for heroism and violence, but he’s also cheerfully accepting of and affectionate towards his fellow soldiers.

Casual racism and homophobia – two more features that we might expect from army life – are both flirted with but then disavowed. Except, that is, in the form of sloppy, bigoted Perk, the weak link in the quartet. His bed always messily unmade, he struggles with army life while directing half-jokey slurs towards his comrades. He needs to be here – what else is there for him, save a dead-end job in Poundland? – but it’s clear from the beginning that he won’t be able to keep up. As played by Tom Gill, he’s difficult to like but impossible to entirely hate. Restless and jerky, he vibrates with pent-up energy, a fidgeting symbol of the directionless frustration of so many young men from whom hope and compassion have been robbed. And when the others finally turn on him, as of course they must, the tension is unbearable.

Then, after an oddly swift and not entirely necessary interval, that carefully mounted tension – along with Perk – disappears. We still seem to be in the barracks, but the text becomes more abstract, more confusing. Locke, Valentine and Mackay are all describing deaths (brave, bloody, triumphant deaths) in conflict. Their own? Other soldiers’? Or those of self-sacrificing heroes in glibly glorifying Hollywood movies? As the scene continues, it appears to be the latter, but once again Miller’s production is calculatedly unclear. The point, perhaps, is that the boundaries between those different deaths have themselves become clouded, as has the distinction between celebration of comradeship and critique of aggression. Watching this sequence, a kind of queasiness creeps over me: a mixture of discomfort at the aestheticising of war in the characters’ language and uncertainty about the many competing politics of conflict at play.

“Peace,” says one of the recruits, “is just a gap between wars.” It’s a statement, like so much of the show, that can be read multiple ways. Peace, in one sense, can only be defined in opposition to war, a truth that to me feels implicitly critical of the violence that constantly seeps across the globe. But for these soldiers, trained and poised for war, peace is just that: a gap, a period of waiting around. I think again about all those poppies. Are they markers of respect and remembrance? Problematic badges of patriotism? Or are they hollowed-out symbols, tools deployed for political point-scoring? Lines might coincide with the annual performance of remembrance, but it isn’t about to provide any answers.

The Mikvah Project, Yard Theatre

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Note: the performance I saw was the second preview.

The first thing you notice is the water. The Mikvah Project has plonked a pool – “a massive fucking pool”, to quote Megan Vaughan – right in the middle of The Yard’s stage. It’s so dominating that there’s room for little else in Cécile Trémolieres’ design; just a row of hooks on the back wall and the tatty, functional, scrubbed-clean aesthetic of a public leisure centre.

The pool, tendrils of steam slowly rising from its surface, is the Mikvah of the title. If – like me before reading about the show – you’re wondering what a Mikvah is exactly, it’s a Jewish bath used for ritual immersion. It has associations of cleansing, transformation, rebirth. When Adam was banished from the Garden of Eden, he flung himself in the river that flowed from the perfect world he’d just left, desperately trying to wash away the stains of sin. The first Mikvah was born.

This space, saturated with ritual, religion and tradition, forms the constant backdrop of Josh Azouz’s tender two-hander. It becomes the focal point for the lives of its two male characters, 35-year-old Avi and 17-year-old Eitan, exerting an almost palpable gravitational pull. Even when the narrative positions them elsewhere, the Mikvah is still there.

The tradition, apparently, is to immerse yourself in the Mikvah three times, a nod to the three times it’s mentioned in the Torah. Avi, a man writhing inside his own skin, immerses nine times. He just can’t get clean enough. As for Eitan, well, he’s not sure he wants to wipe away his apparent sins.

Azouz’s play – and similarly Jay Miller’s production – takes its time. It unravels (and unravel feels like just the right word) at an unapologetically gradual pace. We learn a little about the characters: that Avi is married and trying desperately for a baby, that Eitan is still at school and has been kicked out of the synagogue choir. But more importantly we learn about their relationship, a vague acquaintance that through the shared ritual of the Mikvah delicately, almost imperceptibly shifts into something far deeper, far more intoxicating.

It’s immersion by stealth. Watching, at first it feels as though I’m treading water – ticking off items in a mental exposition checklist, trying to decide whether the delivering of lines into microphones is interesting or cliched. But slowly, inch by inch, and without me quite realising until it’s too late, I get dragged under. Soon I’m gulping for air and stretching my water metaphors too far in an attempt to sidestep what I can’t quite articulate.

A lot of it has to do with the understatement and delicacy of the performances. As the older Avi, Jonah Russell flickers with a near-constant edge of discomfort. He is the very definition of unsettled, both by Eitan and by his own reaction to this teenage boy. Oliver Coopersmith’s Eitan, meanwhile, struggles to contain everything he feels, his jittery impulsiveness threatening to overpower Avi’s ruffled sense of propriety. Their conversations carry all of this at the same time as being awkward, halting, weighted down with the baggage of the real world outside the Mikvah. Intimacy can only emerge at intervals. And by the time the orbit of these two men crashes together, we instinctively understand that the sweetness of their collision will be short-lived, painfully intensifying the joy of their coming together.

The whole production is similarly light of touch. On second preview, there are still some moments that unsurprisingly snag – the opening hasn’t quite got the clarity it needs yet, and generally the scenes set outside the Mikvah are less confidently realised than those within its walls – but the overall feeling is one of tender fragility. Unobtrusive projections flicker and ripple insubstantially on the back wall; small, murmured snatches of “Hideaway” and “Wicked Game” and looped, ritualistic humming provide the spare but evocative soundtrack. Then there’s the pool itself: ever-present, with all its heavy suggestions of the faith that binds the two characters, but at the same time playful and kind of joyous.

There’s also an interesting but not quite fully explored sense in which Avi and Eitan are telling their own story, alternately distancing from and drenching themselves in it. Outside the Mikvah, Azouz’s script plays around with the first and third person; at times, both men want to dissociate themselves from their actions and emotions, while at others teller and subject merge into one. These shifts could be exploited more, elaborating on the conflicted and altering attitudes both men feel towards their relationship – a relationship that they might occasionally want to scrub away along with everything else.

But they can’t. The Mikvah yields transformation, for sure, but it can’t cleanse Avi and Eitan of their desire or their pain. Like that very first Mikvah that Adam immersed in outside the boundaries of Eden, it fails to transport them back. Instead they’re left, stranded in this new world and struggling with what that means. Struggling, flailing, trying not to go under.