September 2016 – NCF & Fresh Milk Emerging Director Residency Programme
Through my company, Yardie Boy Theatre, we like to explore social themes that affect young Caribbean voices. Some may perceive us to be controversial for tackling such themes as religion, gender and sexuality and socio political. Many concepts of directing have been explored such as divisive theatre, use of music, dance and performance poetry. A young people’s theatre company that is highly inspired by everything culturally Caribbean.
Such works include ‘De Angry Black Boy Tantrums’ (pictured above) which delves into the oppression of the Caribbean black man in the 21st Century. ‘Demons in Me’, when four young people battle inner demons while under scrutiny of the society. ‘The Brightest Red’ a piece dedicated to the memory of young intellectual Rastafarian, I’Akobi Maloney.
My name is Matthew ‘Kupakwashe’ Murrell and I am a part of the Emerging Theatre Director’s Residency pilot project with the National Cultural Foundation (NCF) and Fresh Milk. Although this is the first collaboration of its kind, it’s not the first time I’m undertaking a theatre residency at Fresh Milk. In 2013, I completed a residency in playwriting, producing an excerpt of a play I was devising titled ‘The Brightest Red’.
For the first week, I’ve experienced some ups and downs as it’s the first of its kind and some kinks have to be dealt with along the way to make future participants happy. Given two weeks to do research and then give a presentation of findings is really not enough. Talking to my assigned mentor, St. Lucian playwright and director Kendel Hippolyte, he agreed as well. One week for researching and another for rehearsals as I divided it, still meant little time for proper conceptualisation, rehearsals, scheduling etc. As a director’s residency, I would expect more time to be given for proper research and rehearsals, but it seemed more like a tight window for academic purposes of research and a small presentation of findings. I also expected not to do the whole piece as intended, but even a scene or two in this small window isn’t enough in my opinion. Time is necessary.
So for my residency I’m working on ‘Shakespeare’s Nigga’ written by Trinidadian born and Toronto based playwright and actor Joseph Jomo Pierre. I was first introduced to Joseph’s work years ago as a student at the Errol Barrow Centre for Creative Imagination (EBCCI). At that time, Alison Sealy-Smith was teaching there fresh off the boat. I always found his work to be daring and unapologetic, and it influenced my writing a lot, especially when our works focused largely on masculinity. Later, Joseph and I became good friends when I travelled to Toronto and spoke about this particular project. ‘Shakespeare’s Nigga’ enters into the dream world of Shakespeare where he is confronted by his black/Moor characters. His rebellious slave Aaron (Titus Andronicus), his obedient ‘slaves’ Othello (Othello) and Tyrus (Titus Andronicus). Shakespeare also deals with his rebellious daughter Judith, who has an ongoing relationship with Aaron. I chose this play for the themes presented and what they meant for me. Shakespeare represents a part of the patriarchy; 50 years of Independence is being celebrating all throughout the Caribbean this year, and our literary giants still hold a back seat to Shakespeare.
His works in our space are considered ‘classics’ and used as a tool for classicism in our classrooms in the days of ‘growing up stupid under the union jack’. Reading the text, as a Caribbean ‘yute’, I saw the proverbial whip being handed down on Aaron’s back by Othello, who was ordered by Shakespeare to do so, as a constant reminder not only of physical but also mental slavery. Aaron’s response to uprise and to denounce Shakespeare as not his ‘negro’ but his ‘nigga’, turning around that hateful word and putting power and purpose to it, and also Othello’s realisation of Shakespeare’s separatism of he and Aaron to cause divide is nothing short of revolutionary for black literary consciousness.
“I am not Shakespeare’s negro. My palate is not so refine. My coarse hair knows not the acquaintance of a brush…”
As research goes, I’ve brushed up on my Shakespeare knowledge on Titus Andronicus and Othello. To be very fair, I am not a Shakespeare fan (except Hamlet), so personal feelings aside, it’s quite interesting to see the playwright’s use of characterisations of the hated Moorish slave in one piece and a hated Moorish commander in other. Both did what they could do to muster respect and a proper way of life, instead…
“…For the paper, look how low we’a stoop/
even if you in a Benz, you still a nigga in a coup/coup…”
– Kanye West
I’ve also done a lot of reading in Augusto Boal’s ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’ which I may add is one of the hardest rangate books on theatre and performance I’ve ever read. So theatre kids in college and university reading this blog, invest in it. Many a times while reading it, I’ve been constantly reminded of what I love about the theatre, and what I think has been missing from our scene for some time. Another part of my research was looking at Spike Lee’s ‘Chi-Raq’. As a Spike Lee fan all my life, I totally enjoyed what he did in taking Lysistrata and making it a contemporary film surrounding the tragedies happening in Chicago’s inner city. Taking a Greek tragedy and showing the purpose and strength of #BlackLivesMatter was especially something I wanted to focus on within my research.
Along with the research, my mentor Kendel and I had great conversations about theatre, the drama and the direction of the piece. The dream of Shakespeare opens countless ideas of how to manipulate the space. The use of language, sound and lights presented endless ideas and great discussions. Next week I work with my actors in the space. Right now, instead of using all the characters, I will only be using three. The legendary Patrick Foster as Shakespeare, the enigmatic Nala as Aaron and the feminist powerhouse Luci Hammans as Judith…I love my cast as you can see from their superpowers.
And as I end this report…
“what light over yonder breaks?
….oh shite, is de ra**hole police!”
I almost didn’t know what to write for this report. At first when I thought about this week, I kind of felt I had very little to say or report – yet when I really thought about it, I have a lot to say.
Well, first off, I got more clarity on what is expected of me during the residency, which has caused me to re-evaluate many things, almost start over and restructure. One thing that’s for sure is the importance of timing and planning. With that said, the date of the residency showcase has been postponed till late October. This works better for me and for everyone. In order to have a productive rehearsal, I can’t have my actors being loud disturbing the concentration of the visual artists. Also, we have time to focus on the text with stretched out rehearsal times.
Speaking with Kendel Hippolyte, we’ve asked some serious questions and came up with very interesting observations about the texts and the characters. It’s very clear he loves this play and the craftiness of Joseph’s attempt at old English fused with modern English. In conversation with him and my actors, we’re still dissecting the characters and figuring out who they really are and what their purposes are. The language has a lot to offer in many different connotations and offers a range of possibilities for both actor and director to explore. Many views were agreed on and a few questioned, but the journey to discovery is most amazing and rewarding, definitely the highlight of the residency.
I can’t say that I have a 100% concrete idea and concept of how to stage it. Through the many conversations with mentor and cast, more ideas float in and out. This is great, but I also need to concentrate on the theme I am pushing, which is Black Masculinity. One of my objectives is to give this text a space in the Caribbean, have the actors own the language in their voice. Our discussions on black masculinity mostly take place through the character of Aaron and the decisions he makes. Why Shakespeare’s daughter? How does he feel about Othello? The will to over throw Shakespeare’s empire.
The rehearsal space gave room for exploration and discovery. Friday’s rehearsal saw Patrick and Nala on their feet working a scene where the power dynamic switches from Shakespeare to Aaron. After all the reading and discussion and dissecting of text for further understanding, after the second time on their feet, the actors got very intense. Choices of ‘interrogation’, ‘opium and open threats’, ‘dependency and power’ overcame the scene. Patrick and Nala as veteran actors entrusted me as a young director to get them to that point, and I am confident we have found the direction to head in. The actors, so happy and impressed by the work we put in, hug it out after a strong rehearsal!
So since the push back to October, I will be stretching my rehearsals to once a week. Though my time with Kendel is almost up, we agreed to keep talking through the duration of the residency as our conversations are very insightful, and often times humorous in the things we discover in the text and the ‘interesting’ choices I would like to make. I have more hours to make up with my actress than I do with my actors, but I’m excited about what I’ve learned in the process of directing, and excited to see what more can be uncovered.
Week 3 (extended time)
This week was a short week, but this post won’t be short; though short, it was still relatively impactful.
On Tuesday, I had the pleasure of meeting and conversing with Dr. Sean Benson, a US professor specializing in Shakespeare. We had quite an extensive and enlightening conversation. I had my questions ready to discover some truths about Shakespeare, but the conversation didn’t go as I’d imagined. We’ve both discovered Shakespeare’s impact on the US is not necessarily as deep and as complex as it is in the West Indies. Within my research, I wanted to uncover Shakespeare’s invasive legacy onto the Caribbean space as a tool of socio-political, race related, educational and literary oppression. Many of these things Sean didn’t know, but totally understood how it could be so, being as we both agreed that after the Bible, the next series of literary oppression to the enslaved Africans and free Africans would be the works of Shakespeare. Shakespeare in the US, is not Shakespeare in the West Indies. As Sean stated, Shakespeare isn’t putting anyone on the back burner in America, as America has been more diverse in its literary scene. Many American and non-American writers dominate their spaces, with Tennessee Williams, Langston Hughes and even Samuel Beckett having their dedicated audiences, and even festivals in their names. Whereas on this island, every year in Holder’s Season, Shakespeare is met with bourgeoisie audiences, expensive tickets and a class privilege one must hold; let’s not forget Gale Theatre as well and their Shakesperian contribution.
In our society, for many years, to know and understand Shakespeare, his ‘classics’, sonnets and the iambic pentameter, showed your level of intelligence and social status, or potential for these things. Sean also mentioned that his UWI students (who he believes are being overworked!) come into the classroom knowing more about Shakespeare, almost twice as much as his American students! Yet, though he himself says he’s a fan of Derek Walcott, can’t say the same for his Caribbean students. I introduced my new buddy to the works of some of my favourite Caribbean playwrights and poets, Kamau Brathwaite, Denis Scott and Earl John, to have a feel for some awesome Caribbean classics.
Sean and I also delved into the Moor characters, Aaron and Othello, and this is where I learned a lot and discovered some greatness to employ in Shakespeare’s Nigga. Sean gave me a basic timeline for Aaron, from Titus Andronicus being the first mention of a Moor in Shakespeare’s earliest works. Though the writing of the play and staging of it were two different times, it was staged before slavery ever started. Interestingly enough, Aaron is a slave that carries out deadly deeds in the name of the crown and persecuted for it. My question was, how would Shakespeare have met with Moors at that time? Apparently, Mr. Shakespeare would’ve befriended a Moor living in the UK and, as writers do, felt compelled to understand his friend’s culture and write about it, as a challenge to himself. Sean also believes that Othello is an evolved character based on Aaron, basically a Moor going from slavery to being a free man, with Othello being written much later in Shakespeare’s life. I found it interesting that Shakespeare in his time would’ve been seen as a very progressive writer, who wrote for the unspoken for, defied the traditional way of writing and gave not only a black man a voice, but women a more powerful voice at the time. It’s interesting to see how a meager living playwright could centuries later be considered the ‘pinnacle’ of literary greatness. (Something to aspire to! Hmmm). Also funny, when same said meager playwright, whose profession was seen as lower than low, centuries later is heralded by the bourgeoisie. When Othello was staged, Sean informed me, that it was the most hated of Shakespeare’s plays for many reasons.
- At the time, the Aristole way of playmaking was to write about Kings and Queens, and though army generals might seem noble, it’s not noble enough! (Noble Othello! – or not so much)
- How dare you, Shakespeare, write a play about a black man! Especially when at the time you wrote that play, Europe was about to embark on the biggest economic plan the world has ever seen! SLAVERY!!!
- And then you had the audacity, the unmitigated gall to give that…that…Moor the title of the play…Othello!
- And he’s married to a white woman??? And you expect this play to be released under the queen’s patronage? A black man with a white wife??? You are inciting interracial coupling, do you know what that means!? God what next? Gay marriage!?
I had no idea Shakespeare could’ve been seen as progressive; kinda made me respect that man just a little. Maybe it’s his followers who irk me a bit (sounding a lot like John Lennon here). To think that Shakespeare wrote a play like this of such political magnitude at a time where he could’ve easily lost what little he had, was quite brave. What fascinated me more, was the progression of Aaron to Othello. Aaron, an angry and enslaved Moor, was desperate for freedom and basically would do anything at any cost for this freedom. Aaron would’ve faced blatant racism to its highest degree, physical and mental, causing his actions to seem evil though understandable – he’s treated like an animal and will lash out like one. Now with Othello, a successful and progressive Moor, he speaks the language, walks in their spine and adheres to their rules, yet he is not an equal. He too faces the racism and jealousy of white men who feel that, because of their skin colour, they deserve more than Othello. Othello, I think, has a deep internal struggle which I see a lot of black men today face, where to prove success is to embody the oppressor while still being oppressed. This type of black man is caught between the field of Aarons, questioning his blackness or his contribution to the struggle, versus fighting the system from within, almost assimilating to become part of it, and although having proven himself worthy of all praise, is never good enough due to the ‘curse of skin pigmentation ’.
Not only in Shakespeare’s Nigga, but in many contemporary forms of Othello, we’ve seen this struggle of black masculinity challenged, and conversation has been generated around successful black men marrying white women as a way to boost to their social standing. I think we’ve had more stories understanding the Aarons of the world, the plight of the disadvantaged black man in an oppressive state (even I have my plays about them), but Othello is quite interesting to dissect. Often times, we praise the Aarons: we filled the seats for Roots in the 70s, Django Unchained had many people talking, Birth of a Nation is coming out soon, and most if not all Caribbean nations have a statue built of their emancipation hero. Then there are the unsung Aarons, ones not quite heroes, but tragic black heroes who in our contemporary adaptations face harsh penalties like Jimmy Cliff in The Harder they Come or even the portrayal of Easy E in Straight Outta Compton. We don’t always like these images, these harsh, broody and hateful images of black men. Men whose faces are hardened by the life they were systematically placed in. We feel these images are destructive, demonstrative of an already disenfranchised community. When the art is reflecting the images we see, we panic that it can and possibly encourage more Aarons without a cause, almost seemingly forgetting the point of the existence of that Aaron. We just see the gratuitous violence, the tattoos, misogyny, the drugs and the love of a deadly lifestyle; then we want to see more Othellos.
“…I am a fucking black man
Hole in my head
Brains in my belly…”
– Kamau Brathwaite
What about the images we give the Othellos? First image that came to my mind was Thomas DuBois of the Boondocks. Middle class black man, highly educated and great job. These Othello images can’t seem to just get it together, with people often questioning their blackness (How real is you, Nigga!). He doesn’t want to be labelled as an Aaron of the world, but he understands the Aaron. He still has to do his job, even if that means placing Aarons in trouble. He could easily be very well hated and loved for the same reasons. He’s successful, he’s over diplomatic, he wants to please his people but he wants to keep his status and gain power. He can’t really balance both; if he wants to please his people, he could risk his status, putting him back in a position where he can’t do much as before. If he pleases his superiors, he’s a ‘sellout’ an ‘uncle tom’ and a ‘coon’, and essentially ‘forgot where he came from’.
We know these Othellos. They’re professors at our Universities, they govern our countries and become knighted, they eloquently speak for the misleading media houses, the doctors, lawyers, the academics. We praised them when they fought on our behalf, but somewhere down the line they became ‘sellouts’, they’ve lived long enough to see themselves become what they once hated. A friend of mine from South Africa, she shook me to core once when she told me she has no love for Nelson Mandela. I know many black people who are dissatisfied with Barack Obama not addressing gun laws (or even pardoning Marcus Garvey!). How many disparaging statements we’ve heard about Sir Hilary Beckles. Our preferred Othellos usually have tragic moments before we could see them evolve into characters we no longer recognise; basically they die in climax of their revolutionary stance. Those Othellos are like Walter Rodney, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Some have slow deaths into obscurity due to whatever reason like Marcus Garvey, Clement Payne. These Othellos ultimately want peace, not justice. He might even say words like ‘assimilation’, ‘adapt’, his version of equality might not match yours. He wants Progression without Aggression, but sadly it can’t always happen, so they opt for the life better suited. They want their status, respect and a comfy home. Their partners may play the part of submissive wife, preferably in the categories of white, light skinned or racially ambiguous. Even if she’s black, she has to be highly educated but submissive, she doesn’t have to work either, and please, not the angry Angela Davis/Cole type! Why the change? He can’t take it anymore, he’s done enough for you ‘ungrateful negroes!’ If he can do it, you all can do it! He no longer believes there is a system because he’s cracked the system and become successful, so there is no racism!
“…my people? They don’t need me.
They got legs and arms of their own…”
– ‘Dutchman’ – Amiri Baraka
He’s worn, tired and frustrated with black people not working hard enough. He believes that after either affirmative action or 50 years of Independence, black people should know how to better themselves. He also feels disrespected by black people for not giving him the credit he deserves for his contributions. He’s done so much and received so little, all he gets is black people wanting more and more from him. He is now a miserable and cantankerous old man. Oftentimes, he’d write in the newspaper or be on the radio having an opinion no one cares about. He no longer cares to discuss race or race relations because it’s tiring. He’s more #AllLivesMatter than he is #BlackLivesMatter. Internally he still cares for black people, but he doesn’t think they care about him anymore. They’ve scrutinized every move he’s made. Disregarded his contributions. He’s self-loathing. He remembers so many times he’s wanted to be seen as more than just black, that he’s colour blind. Blind to the world, and blind to the struggle…blind to himself.
“…We Cannot All be Masters,
nor All Masters Cannot Truly be Followed…”
What a life to live.
Anyway, much more to learn and grow. I’d like to thank Dr. Sean Benson for a great conversation and learning experience. So much more to learn about the Aarons and Othellos of this world, and the rest of us Moors in between trying to find a balance and conquer these dated notions of black masculinity. Until next time…
This project is a collaborative initiative, funded by the NCF Barbados