So-called ‘diversity’ (the supposed desire for the world of work, particularly the world of creative work, to have as wide a range of people within it as possible, with a specific focus on addressing historical imbalances based on gender, race, sexuality, disability, neuro-diversity, age and, in a few, rare cases, immigration status. Usually well intentioned, often performative) has been circular in motion for the last seventy years or so. It ebbs and flows, peaks and declines, usually in tandem with other social moments. We strike while the iron is hot. This is why the archive is so important, why all activism, all movements, must be intergenerational. We have to learn from previous mistakes and miscalculations. We must put down roots for when the tide goes back out.
This is a constant source of anxiety for the marginalized artist. Or at least it is a constant source of anxiety for this artist. I can never quite seem to stay ahead, am never as grounded in the radical as I would like to be. The language our communities use to critique those with power and status slips through our fingers, is overused to meaninglessness. A treadmill of words, used up by the end of each calendar year: radical, intersectional, privileged, decolonized. There are times when it feels as though our work is also consumed and wrung out. It is hard to keep faith.
What happens when the gatekeepers become bored with identity? What happens when they decide that we, the marginalized, are at critical mass, and they return to the white, male, cis-het default?
I will still be Black.
I will still be an asexual cisgender woman.
I may still be working class. My family definitely will be.
I may still be fat.
I will still be one of Johanna Hedva’s sick women.1
I will still be here.
Will the capitalist gaze?
I’m a performance maker and artist from Birmingham. I do the job that I do because it is the closest I get to feeling free.
It is a job with an intimate relationship to many, many gazes.
The price of freedom is constant vigilance. If the community is vigilant together, then perhaps we are free together. But if the members of a community that are most vulnerable must do the work of vigilance for those closest to the hegemony, it is no longer freedom. It is the status quo.
Our gaze (radical, rigorous, aching for change) is work.
I’m watching a documentary about the artist Carmen Herrera, whose work was ‘discovered’ when she was eighty-nine. I like her. She is sharp and to the point, with a beautiful clarity of phrase. Her way of speaking is like her art: refined and focused. The film is called The 100 Years Show; you can find it on Netflix.The man behind the camera asks her if she likes talking about her art, and she says no. ‘You have to art about art!’
I have a small tremor of panic when I hear this. I, like many artists of colour, write about art all the time. Mine, and others.
Partially this is because it so rarely feels like anybody else writes about it properly. When my show salt. is in Edinburgh, I ache for Black criticism, even if in the process the work is torn apart. I just want someone who is expert in the themes the show explores to reflect on it. When Alexandrina Helmsley writes her reflections for The Sick of the Fringe, it feels, for me, like a long exhale.
There is a growing body of Black British theatre and arts criticism, largely led by women and femmes: Salome Wagaine, Bridget Minamore, Project O, Hannah Black, Travis Alabanza, Malik Nashad Sharpe, Nicole Acquah. Black-led companies such as Tiata Fahodzi commission and champion blog posts that reflect on work politically and critically. This work influences and goes viral, spins threads of assent and enthusiasm across Twitter.
Doing this work is not without risk. When, in 2014, I wrote a blog post in response to my experience of Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B, an immersive representation of a human zoo, I was bombarded with outraged and abusive emails until around April 2015, at which point I took the article down.
Last year, the Orange Tree in Richmond staged An Octoroon, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ prickly, stinging exploration of American theatre’s racial stereotypes. The work was universally lauded by exclusively white critics – but there was a quiet, persistent rumble of dissent from some audience members who happened to be both Black and British. At the time, I was particularly struck by how Salome Wagaine’s thoughtful critique of the work pre-empted a similar response: she even went so far as to explicitly state that this was not ‘a community response’.2 It is territory laden with landmines, landmines not only for us, but also for those we are assumed to speak for.
The safe space, in my experience, is always the more politically rigorous space. Protected from the public glare, the critique found in WhatsApp groups and email threads flourishes. Here, the work is spoken about, but so are the audiences and the front-of-house staff. No punches are pulled, nothing is held back. People disagree, fiercely. This is not a utopian, community response. It buzzes with knowledge, the Black gaze unleashed.
I always wanted to make art that took the conversations I only ever felt able to have with other Black people and made them public. Sometimes, I think I’ve pulled it off. Other times, I read back over the messages and realize there are still so many things that need saying that we have not, cannot, say publicly. What I have learned, perhaps thanks to Exhibit B, it is not safe to say. Audre Lorde’s ‘your silence will not protect you’ is oft quoted, and she is, as always, right; but choosing where you will speak, and how, might help me pay my rent and save me from feeling the prickle of anxiety every time I check my phone.
Carmen Herrera’s words remain with me, but arguing against them is the knowledge that, in the right hands, critique is also art. A few days after I watch the documentary, I catch sight of bell hooks’ Outlaw Culture on my bookshelf, and my doubts are stilled.
Critique can be the reworking of the oppressive gaze, an act of political bravery, if we can only hold our nerve.
What the culture reviews establishes what the culture values.
Lyn Gardner says this during a panel talk when I’m a slightly younger artist and it sticks with me. Now, I find myself wondering what relationship this statement has to the current state of theatre’s gaze, and wanting to rewrite it. I want to write:
who reviews the culture
how they review it
whether they are paid to review it and how much
who reads it
who is assumed as their audience
who is listened to and who is dismissed…
is what defines the culture.
This is what wheedles its way into the rehearsal room – and it is this which shapes not only what the culture values, but what the culture is. These things come together and compile theatre’s gaze: who we make our work for, and what we assume they need to know, and will already know.
The writing of a review is often a singular task, but the dismantling of a hegemonic gaze is communal work that breaks spaces open. Without this work, it is so easy to dam the flow of diversity when it is at its shallowest and most precarious.
I am at the Tate Modern. I am gazing at We Apologise for the Delay to Your Journey – a Tube map that diligently archives Black British art. We discuss the work, six Black women. We discuss our industry. We argue, we disagree. I am thrilled by it.
The gaze is in flux here. It shimmers, re-forms, twists and spins as we spar and parry, thrust and deflect, all the while binding the art and our collective history in this work.
We remake the gaze.
1^ ‘The Sick Woman is all of the “dysfunctional”, “dangerous” and “in danger”, “badly behaved”, “crazy”, “incurable”, “traumatized”, “disordered”, “diseased”, “chronic”, “uninsurable”, “wretched”, “undesirable” and altogether “dysfunctional” bodies belonging to women, people of color, poor, ill, neuro-atypical, differently abled, queer, trans, and genderfluid people, who have been historically pathologized, hospitalized, institutionalized, brutalized, rendered “unmanageable”, and therefore made culturally illegitimate and politically invisible’ – Johanna Hedva, Sick Woman Theory
2^ ‘I seek no pleasure from being a contrarian, but I ultimately remain surprised by how little I could empathise with the bulk of what was taking place on stage. Since watching, I have found myself asking how they rehearsed using the word “nigger”, or how many times they would have blacked and redded up during the course of the run. And worrying, too, that articulating these thoughts might make me come across as uncultured, not contemporary enough to appreciate the deftness of the work.’ Salome Wagaine, ‘An Octoroon’