Friday, 23 October 2015

Hair and skin and heart and bones

Somewhere in the midst of Race Cards, Selina Thompson's probing, overwhelming, cumulatively extraordinary set of questions about race in the 21st century, she asks: Do you see whiteness? It's a difficult question for me to answer, which is why – following her printed invitation – I tried to answer it. But I didn't do so with complete honesty. If I had, I'd have confessed that, in relation to myself, no: that is, I do what white privilege – white supremacy, let's call it – makes absolutely possible, and think about how I exist in the world as some kind of default, or normal. My brown, bobbed, variably curly hair, for instance, is normal hair, just like it says on the shampoo bottle.

What I did answer, because it was easier, is that normality for me involves living alongside a microcosmic representation of the global population. I spent my childhood in Hackney, on the north side of London; I've lived almost my whole adulthood in the vicinity of Brixton, to the south: on London's streets, on public transport, in shops, and now at my kids' school, I hear and have always heard languages from across the world; I see every possible skin colour, in the faces of immigrants and the children of mixed parentage. So when I travel outside the capital, to towns where there is either a kind of segregation or people of colour are absent altogether, I see whiteness starkly. That concentrated whiteness troubles me.

And yet, I experience it most nights I go to the theatre in London. I could blame the institutions for not presenting enough work by people of colour, but that would be to elide the problem of my own, white-centric, choices. I mean, how many shows have I seen by Talawa, or Tara, or Tamasha, or Yellow Earth? And that's just to name the obvious companies. There are pitiably few occasions I can think of when I've shared a theatre auditorium with the same people with whom I share the supermarket and streets: Elmina's Kitchen and a couple of others at the National, Scottsboro Boys and Feast at the Young Vic, nights at Theatre Royal Stratford East. Not nearly enough.

At the final London performance of Dark and Lovely, Selina's show about hair – and, through that lens, about being black, British and female – I'm surrounded by black women. Dark-skinned, light-skinned, with large round faces and thin chiselled faces, some older, some younger, with shaved heads, natural hair, extensions, braids, locks, you name it. And that's the first brilliant thing about Dark and Lovely. It's a show made for black women, that holds out its arms to black women, wants to wrap them in an embrace that says, “I know, I know”, without excluding women – or men – of any other colour, background, ethnicity. There is a level at which hair is something that binds all of us as humans, as mammals: fibres made of keratin, growing from follicles. But there is also a level at which black women's hair is a fiercely contested political construct. And that's the space that Dark and Lovely occupies.

The personal being political, Selina delineates that space immediately through a quick-fire sequence of anecdotes that challenge one white woman's criticism of an earlier version of the show that “hair is just hair”: nothing to get so worked up about. Anecdotes about children being belittled for the kind of hair they have; adults being made to feel like they'll never measure up to the standards of desirability policed by the fashion industry, media and Hollywood; more than that, facing insinuations about their private lives because of the kind of hair they have; the astonishing facts of how much money is earned by beauty companies out of exploiting not only the resulting insecurities but the specific hair-care requirements of black women. With each anecdote, at least one, usually more, woman in the crowd nods or vocalises her recognition, asserts her shared experience. And that's the second brilliant thing about Dark and Lovely: the way Selina packs it with detail, vignettes that might describe scenes from the lives of people actually in the room, with which they can connect directly [1]. She talks about gasping with joy at recent movies and TV shows featuring black female characters in which something particular, distinctive, has happened relating to their hair. The electric thrill that inspires, of seeing yourself, your banal reality, acknowledged in public culture, is one her show provides its black female audience over and over again.

This is such a friendly show: Selina beams as she tells these anecdotes, stands at a hostess trolley (!!!) (sorry, I have a thing for hostess trolleys) mixing up fruit and rum punches for us to share, interrupts the script with sparky bits of improvisation. Instead of distancing herself on a stage, she's built a hut – she calls it her “tumbleweave” – from chicken wire and hair extensions, laid it out with a flowered carpet so comically redolent of the 1970s I half expected it to have its own avocado bathroom suite, and performs bits of the show poking her head through its windows and snuggled inside with as many of us can squeeze in (I couldn't, but it was fine: I still felt connected). Her cheerfulness almost – almost – belies the anger glowing beneath. But it's part of the rhythm of the show that Selina is like a pot on a slow heat: sometimes she's just simmering, but it doesn't take much for her to bubble up with fury. It's a fury that directs inwards to herself, and outwards to society, but never at the black women in the room. And this is the third brilliant thing: throughout, Selina makes clear that the feelings she has about her own hair should in no way be construed as a criticism of what other black women feel or choose to do with theirs. There are enough people in the world passing judgement like that.

The feelings Selina has are complicated, and inevitably shaped by those judgements – particularly as expressed by her own family and friends. Dreadlocks, for instance, are deemed unacceptable by her mum and nan, and when, as a 17-year-old, she shaved her hair off (she had strong high cheekbones then, she tells us, and looked beautiful; there's a photo of her inside the tumbleweave, and it's true, she did), her father didn't speak to her for a month. She thought she was emulating Skin from Skunk Anansie; friends just thought she was pulling a Britney. It's heartbreaking, because in these stories can be read the beginnings of a troubled relationship not just with hair but self: self-confidence, self-belief, self-care, self-acceptance.

That might suggest this is a selfish story, but it isn't: throughout, Selina weaves, or plaits, her own story with strands from others, collected during an extensive research period in Chapeltown, a predominately black area of Leeds. A woman who does people's hair in their living rooms tells stories of women having their hair permanently damaged, their scalps burned and scarred, by careless hairdressers. In a beauty emporium Selina encounters a woman who lost her hair to chemotherapy, then discovered that it's impossible to buy an Afro except in novelty colours, because no one in the wig industry thinks black women get cancer. In a barbershop frequented by old men and teenagers, she meets one youngster routinely teased by his friends for getting his grandmother to do his cornrows: he can do it himself in a fraction of the time, it transpires, but doesn't to make sure that someone is seeing his granny on a regular basis. Listening, we're pushed and pulled with emotion, ebb and flow with horror and love.

Chapeltown isn't where Selina lives, incidentally; she was commissioned to make a work that reflected the lives of the community there – a community assumed to be her own, even though she lives on the other side of Leeds. She's as honest about the mixed feelings this provokes as she is about her hair and her family: the sense of fraudulence, almost, tapping into a deep vein of anxiety that she is as friends have described her, “a coconut”, not black enough, too absorbed in white culture, white thinking. There's a whole set of questions in Race Cards – also difficult – about the position of black artists in a fundamentally white arts industry; questions about power, assumption, cultural appropriation. Selina doesn't address them directly in Dark and Lovely, but they're there, at the periphery, livid. Standing on a ladder at the centre of the tumbleweave, so that she seems to be wearing a huge, unwieldy, Disney-princess ballgown, she switches on a sequence of hairdryers and talks about the prospect of becoming, through this commission, an “angry black woman”: the difficulty of inhabiting that cliche, the desire to smash it. This is as noisy as the show gets, and it's telling that she uses the noise to create static, disruption, a facsimile, I feel, of what it sounds like in her own brain, as thoughts about race and responsibility churn through it, unresolved.

I'm fascinated by the way that Selina's softness operates in this show as a way of holding its audience in difficulty; it reminds me of conversations I've had with and about Chris Goode's Ponyboy Curtis ensemble, to do with creating a space in which a person's fight and revolutionary fire aren't extinguished but tended, given oxygen and support. (There's a wonderful bit of thinking about niceness in Rajni Shah's most recently blog posts, too, in which she talks about the vital importance of “those spaces that are both difficult and nice”.) Because she really is furious, Selina, properly fucking apoplectic at the casual racism and sexism that persist in the world; and it's a contested thing, in feminism, the ease with which women who are angry get typecast as strident and unappealing, so I could be falling into a trap saying this, but to me it's a positive – the fourth brilliant thing – that the mood of Dark and Lovely is kind rather than aggressive. There's a fascinating moment when Selina falls prey to a similar bit of typecasting: she talks about the extensions she wore over the winter, heavy plaits that reached to her waist, and describes them as “womanly”. That word, its binary coding of femininity and attractiveness, makes me flinch.

I think the gentleness allows Selina to dig deeper, cut closer to the bone: particularly in the final section, when she uses a very direct metaphor, sitting outside the tumbleweave pulling clotted mats of soapy hair from a concealed plughole, for the dredging of her own soul. She talks about Toni Morrison's book The Bluest Eye, and then Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks: about the deep-rooted desire perhaps not to be black, or not to carry the weight of being black, the internalisation of colonial thinking that black men are inferior to white men, and black women lesser still. There are two rasping sounds in this section of the show: one in Buffalo's excellent, subtle soundtrack, which is the rasp of a comb through (I'm assuming) Selina's own hair; the other when Selina is talking about The Bluest Eye, and about being a child who wore a towel over her head to pretend she had blonde hair long enough to chew, and she pauses to take a particular breath. In the rasp of that breath I recognise the sounds of panic and of holding inside tears: in that single moment I understand just how much she pushes herself to perform this show.

As a white person in the room, I inevitably represent the white gaze, and by extension the colonial gaze, and all the racism closely knitted into the fabric of modern society. As the child of immigrants from a former British colony, I also reject the simplicity of that construction. And this is the fifth brilliant thing about Dark and Lovely: it is interested in those complexities. Selina has made it for black women, to nod their assent, hear their selves and their stories, their complicated, torn desires, their deepest pains. But its willingness not to exclude means that, across the 90 minutes, it has the potential to bring up a medley of memories and associations for anyone in the room. These are some of mine: a story about a little boy with a white mum and an Asian dad, who tells his mum he doesn't want to have dark skin any more, reminds me of my own little boy, standing beside me at the mirror when he was five, and saying that he wants to dye his sandy hair dark brown, to look more like the rest of the family. The smell of coconut oil in a hair treatment that gets passed around the tumbleweave is the smell of the busy streets of my childhood: along with fresh cut grass and laundrettes, one of my favourites. When Selina removes her wig to reveal little-girl braids, she unexpectedly reminds me of Janice, my best friend at primary school. Talk of the barbershop reminds me how much I loved the TV programme Desmond's; the plughole scene brings up my genuine phobia of hairballs, developed when living with my friend Gemma at university, whose pre-Raphaelite auburn hair became a monster in the shower. I remember being at secondary school and freaking out when my friends – all blonde, for some reason – ganged up on me to chant that my hair was the colour of shit; and my mother laughing when I said I wanted to dye my hair black; and hating my dead-straight hair for not being spirally like my dad's. And then when it curled I remember talking to my Iraqi friend Sam about her hard-to-control ringlets, and sharing kirby-grip tips with my friend Alan, who shaved his off until in his 30s. Amid this mostly cheerful nostalgia, I remember the black women my mum worked with when I was a child, telling her stories of brothers, cousins, uncles, fathers, being taken in to the local police station and beaten, brutalised; that's if they emerged to tell of it. Hair isn't just hair: it's a lifetime of stories. I'm startled by how many.

There was another question in Race Cards, so difficult it still makes my chest feel tight when I think of it: what did Adrienne Rich get out of her friendship with Audre Lorde? I don't know enough about either of them to hazard an answer; yet it frightens me that Adrienne might have used Audre, as a tool to re-educate herself, to make a political point. It's about 14 months now since Selina has been in my life: we met when I organised a conversation with her and Louise Orwin in Edinburgh about body image; since then we've had two more long, exhilarating conversations about race, feminism and performance and another over email, which I quote almost any time anyone uses the word intersectionality. In each and in the weeks following, I've felt encouraged and supported by her in being absolutely honest, challenged by her to notice how I speak and think, invited to register the influence of growing up white to parents who worked hard to make me middle-class. I hope I've given her the same encouragement, support, challenge and invitation. But at the same time it terrifies me, the vastness of the possibility that, if not already, I will one day say something to Selina that makes her shoulders drop with disappointment, that demonstrates my failure to see whiteness, my internalisation of its privileges and its racisms. She makes me question the words I use and try harder, want to try harder, to use better ones. Is that what Adrienne got out of her relationship with Audre? Would Audre recognise that, or agree?

It was while walking to Ovalhouse to see Dark and Lovely that I caught myself thinking of my hair as normal. Before Selina, I wouldn't have noticed. In the best possible way she gives me pause, and I cherish her, love her, for it.

[1] I wanted to come back to this (so you don't have to scroll back up, it's the bit where I say that the second brilliant thing about Dark and Lovely is the way Selina packs it with detail, vignettes that might describe scenes from the lives of people actually in the room) because it directly contradicts the response of Stephanie Phillips, who reviewed Dark and Lovely for Media Diversified. And that troubles me, because Stephanie is a black woman and I represent precisely the white gaze that she thinks Selina is giving too much consideration. Here's what she says:

My only question to Thompson would be to ask, who was the performance developed for? The detail in which she described aspects of black life for the audience felt like she was not speaking fully to black women instead breaking from her story to bring white people up to speed.

Understandably a performance on black women's hair without any explanations could be confusing for anyone who is not a black woman but perhaps sometimes it is better to follow in the footsteps of legendary writers such as Junot Diaz and Toni Morrison. They both strongly believed that when writing about your own community you need to speak directly to them, especially when they are rarely acknowledged in wider society.

Black women need their own space, room and or tumbleweave where they can be accepted and told that they matter.

The difference in our opinion fascinates me – especially as I've been besotted with Junot Diaz since encountering Drown 18 years ago; the voice and pace and music of his writing are endlessly intoxicating and inspiring – because I don't think there's any way of reconciling them. To me, the details are a way of acknowledging a community in wider society. To me, Selina is constantly telling the black women in the audience that they matter. But, as a white woman with a white gaze, I don't know how much that thinking can be trusted; or rather, how much Stephanie herself would trust that thinking. I feel safer quoting Selina, who responded to this critique at some length on twitter, not to silence Stephanie, but to engage with and open the debate:

making a performance for/centred around the white gaze is one I wrestled with a lot while making the show. She says that it's the detail with which I recount things that breaks the story up - but for me recounting things in detail is not about making it easier for white people: a) black life is not a monolith, what is black life for one is not black life for all. B) when people shared stories with me, the stories that make the show – it is the details over which we bond, that bring memories to life. C) I don't think Junot or Toni omit detail in speaking to their community – rather they are unafraid to critique their community. … For me, being exacting, trying to pack the show with every little thing is about creating a show that is overwhelming, that heaves with information and significance – because for me, that is how you unlock and unpick the statement hair is just hair.

[2] While I've been writing this, there's been a bit of my mind turning over and over an interesting and unexpected critique of my own work by the brilliant Andrew Latimer. It cropped up in his series Writing as Hope, which mostly passed me by until earlier this week: the problem with trying to wean yourself off social media (as I have been doing, partly to get more books read because so help me I keep buying them, partly because, at the ripe old age of 40, I apparently haven't yet developed the strength of fucking character not to see twitter as a fucking popularity contest) is that you miss out on the excellent essays that excellent people direct you towards. The series as a whole posits writing as a way of thinking in public, but as I'm still digesting it, I'll let Andrew explain it himself: “the core principle of this way of writing is that vulnerability and exposure are not only precious stages in the composition of a thought – and writing is a process which gives us the space to explore that thought – but that writing as hope is an inherently interventionist practice, allowing us to challenge how honest we are with ourselves and our readers, to mine our privilege and prejudice, and to collectively confront our discipline, the art we consume and the fissures in our lives”.

Within the fourth essay, Andrew describes me as a: “writer whose words often dance as if they were set to music”, which is not a lovely thing to say, it does that perspicacious thing the best criticism is supposed to do, articulating my own work back to me in a formulation I recognise but hadn't managed to pinpoint myself. On the rare occasions I run anything approximating a writing workshop, or mentor a younger writer, I always talk about the primacy of rhythm, so clearly I know this is a thing for me, but I don't think I'd connected it to dance the way Andrew does here. Amazing. He goes on to say: “It’s possible that, were it not for her gorgeous style, the points she makes would stumble and wither.” And I'm troubled by that, not because I can't take any kind of criticism (although actually, basically, I can't), but because it feeds directly into an anxiety I've had lately, that the intellectual and theoretical high ground in British theatre writing is primarily occupied by (young, white) men. Stewart Pringle. Tim Bano. This Andrew and Andrew Haydon. Catherine Love used to be more present but these days she's mostly preoccupied with the intellectual and theoretical high ground of a PhD; Megan Vaughan has the clout – and a working knowledge of Kant to make me cry – but chooses not to; so, in a sense, do I. Which makes it basically ridiculous that I'm even worried about this.

Somewhere in the brain mulch provoked by those words stumble and wither is a question about the primacy of intellectualism over emotion (which Andrew himself is questioning in the essays), and how it's possible for men to be angry in ways that women can't without being dismissed as irrational, and how easy it is to slam down anti-capitalist discourse as woolly and impractical because the world it imagines is not yet real. Basically, I'm piqued and challenged, in ways I haven't yet figured out. But it seemed right, and in the spirit of Andrew's argument – an argument for naked vulnerability, and a stripping back of natural defences, and (I particularly love this) for “actively reinventing the interactions and meanings in our lives through the process of writing” – that I should begin trying to work it out here.

[3] On getting home from Dark and Lovely, I put on Blood Orange's Cupid Deluxe for the first time in a while, and I've had this song humming in the background while I've been writing this, too. I have a bad habit of taking pop choruses far too seriously, but there's something about the lines “time will tell if you can figure this and work it out/ no one's waiting for you anyway so don't get stressed out” that speaks to the questions that haunt me from Race Cards, and from Andrew's blog, in a warm and reassuring way.

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