There were these two plays I watched earlier this year that I really loved. One was performed by schoolkids and the other one was aimed at an older people's group. This blog post is a bit less directed compared with my other ones as I'm writing up vignettes of what I remember of them, kind of as a review in the sense I want to express how inspired and embraced they made me feel. I want to share this feeling of inspiration because I could do with more of it. So hit me up, I would love to do proper review of your kid or your cousin or your friend's show and make theatre writing a more regular thing.
Having not watched things like this much as an adult I was surprised by how much the experiences moved me. I have some friends/acquaintances who've made amazing plays I've seen at independent theatres, mostly things written from their perspective that were great pieces of art for how personal they were. In contrast, in my experience of these two projects I loved feeling really connected to the people in the room and being able to relate to someone who wasn't the one who'd written the script.
In both plays I really liked how the audience was closely tied to the performance and cared about it. I loved that they could sing and dance together and it felt meaningful coz they didn't have to get cosigned by some big or respected theatre to do it. The care that the playwrights put in to writing the story for these people felt like such a big hug. I'm trying to see more community theatre shows to get more hugs.
NB if you want a great fictional film about a small community theatre that's funny and heartwarming I would recommend watching A Bread Factory parts I and II which is what got me a bit curious about theatre initially: it's about two theatre producer ladies in Brooklyn who fight to keep their local arts centre open because it's an important hub for a host of sweet, charming and weird characters.
25 eight year olds in suits were dancing together to 'Thats my Prerogative' by Bobby Brown. Their faces ranged from ambivalent to concentrated while their moves synchronised together to the song, a swingy 80s synthy vibe. Their choreo, completely unsmiling in their concentration.
I was my friend Marlon's play back in March. I know Marlon from activism and he teaches drama at the BRIT in the junior school. The play was a story about imprisoned workers at a militarised Amazon factory who tried to overthrow their boss. The cast consisted of about 40 kids in year 4 or 5 and the story was interspersed with singing and dancing numbers of 1980s hits.
Amazon bossman Jeff Bezos was played by a small girl with braids. Marlon's characterisation of Jeff was of an airy fairy type addicted to splashing cash. The girl was one of the most charming actors in the bunch and nailed most of her monologues. But there were a couple of points where she forgot her lines. Marlon, who was stationed middle of the front row of seats, would chime in to prompt at these times, knowing his script like clockwork. After the show, little Jeff Bezos would be reunited with her parents who'd been sitting in the row behind me. They'd give a hug, express their pride in her great performance. Give comfort and reassurance over her forgotten lines.
Another actor played Jeff Bezos' BFF. She also had great charisma and comedic talent. There was a scene where Inland Revenue called up about Amazon's unpaid taxes. She knew what the call meant and she was avoiding it so she was making a hissing noise with her voice to block out their questions. 'What sorry? I can't hear you. The signal's cutting out.' A classic gag.
There was a stir amongst the wings when there was a sudden nosebleed among the cast on stage left. The kids were unsettled. Marlon was preoccupied with the staging needs for the upcoming scene. The other teacher was there holding nosebleed sufferer's chin aloft while diffusing the situation amongst the talking children. Was the kid okay, I wondered. I had no connection to these children whatsoever but I loved them fiercely.
The big wigs were represented by the suits. The proleteriat wore jeans and plain clothes, amongst them were rebels. There was a military class who managed the proles, represented by actors in camoflage.
The emotional climax of the story came when the camo clad managers realised the ways they'd too been exploited. They sang 'The Winner Takes it All'. Tears came into my eyes - Abba always makes me feel emotional. Workers of all types joined together in solidarity to overthrow Bezos and his friends. The last time I felt this amount of communal spirit was at a political demo. I really liked that you could recreate that feeling in the form of a play and with children at that.
After the applause the show wrapped up with someone who seemed like the head or the vice head giving a congratulatory speech to all the kids and praising them for how hard they had worked on the show. It was really moving to see the pride, the tiredness and the inspiration in the eyes of the kids. When I went to say hi to Marlon at the end I had to keep it quick because the next showing was on in an hour and they had to get ready, but I also cos I was a bit dishevelled from crying.
A few months later I went to Green Towers in Edmonton. It was 23rd of June, Windrush Day, and it was the Enfield Caribbean Association's lunch club which there was a play on for. I had heard of Jacqui and Annie who run a theatre project called Jazanne Arts and I wanted to see this show which they were performing for the Caribbean elders.
I didn't have a precise start time apart from 'when the elders finish their lunch' so I had a nice half hour or so chatting to a woman called Karen and her mum who told me about their migration story to London. Karen was born here but her siblings and mum were Windrush generation. I had a quick helping of the food before the chairs got rearranged and the entertainment began.
After poetry from a woman called Lady Essie, there was a quick announcement to share the news of one member of the group called Hyacinth who had met King Charles the day before, as part of Windrush celebrations. She had come over, initially living in Brixton, in 1956, aged 16. Making her 83 years old. All I could think was that she looked way younger than that.
The compere and group organiser then explained Jazanne's show we were about to see. It was a dramatisation of the life of Cislin Parry, one of the members of the group who was in the audience today with her daughter. I was so excited to realise she was in the crowd because I wanted to know how it would feel for someone to have their life dramatised.
The show started, with Annie controlling the sound and playing guitar, and Jacqui narrating and singing. There were two young actors who played Cislin as a young woman and her husband as a young man. As soon as the first song began - a slow and nostalgic calypso jam, Island in the Sun by Harry Belafonte - the attendees all immediately began swaying along and singing. It was kinda disarming because I couldn't remember the last time I went to a play with audience participation on this level, and with such a delighted crowd. I knew this was going to be a waterworks occasion again.
Cislin's story was that she was a teenager when she came over. She met a sweet guy called Denzil through her brother who courted her by asking her out to the cinema. Some of the details of the story are foggy to me now but the two of them set up Aquarius in Finsbury Park, which, with its establishment in the 1970s is one of the oldest hair salons in London to cater to Black people's needs. The two actors portrayed the respectable, shy and cheeky romance very naturally. The two of them were friends before they did the play, Annie told me later.
They portrayed the shubeens the young folk had together, and during each of the party tunes they invited the elders to get up and dance which they did, with enthusiasm. The point when the waterworks finally hit me was when Cislin and Denzil had their wedding ceremony and Annie played the guitar and Jacqui sang Amazing Grace and everybody sang along.
The time frame of events meant Cislin was in her 80s as well. I was kinda confused because I wasn't really sure which one she was in the audience. I kept looking over in the direction the host gestured she was sitting but I didn't see an 80 year old, only a cool middle aged auntie type, maybe a wry smile on her face. She wasn't particularly surprised or entertained by the play. After some enquiries I figured out that that the cool looking lady was her indeed, and that it had been performed a couple of times already, which I'm thinking might have explained Cislin's calmness.
Just to make it deep, I came home and thought about why I was going to these plays that I didn't have much to do with. Why was I obsessed with older people and kids? Was it because I'm trying to find some grandparents I don't have, or be in touch with my child self through watching kids? I dunno. I thought it was pretty natural, really, to want a varied intergenerational community, and it's more that our jobs and social spheres in capitalism make it kind of easiest to stay around people like yourself. I also thought how beautiful it was that people like Jacqui, Annie and Marlon, and the actors and everybody involved was making art that was truly meaningful to people, with basically just their voices and a few props, and without a lot of public recognition or marketing fanfare. Hats off to them.