Congregation As An Act Of Joy: Why I Believe Permanent Black Theatre Spaces Are A Necessity
"Ownership over physical space is beyond asserting power. It is about redefining structures that stop Black communities from flourishing wholeheartedly ..."
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When Black people gather, the function is reincarnated into an embodiment of rhythm and joy in which catharsis becomes food for the soul. It is almost impossible not to re-design the idea of freedom and set alight remnants of colonial traditional etiquette that no longer have a home here. There is something profound and scintillating in the ways Black communities gather within physical space which often discards any dictated ruling in how Black bodies should move and mould into spaces built for our discomfort. Perhaps this natural tendency to re-purpose architecture in the spiritual is a consequence of historically being denied space for congregation in the physical.
Britain’s specific reigning legacy of colonial power-play has always been propped up by the oppressive ability to dominate and decimate power and resource through the ownership of physical space alongside policing the gathering of Black communities. From the active resistance of being denied room for joy on the streets of Notting Hill Carnival, revived on our stages in the theatricality of our realities as shown in Yasmin Joseph's play, J'Ouvert, Black British communities have always managed to find a way of holding space in the face of white supremacist structures. The room for permanent Black-orientated spaces of congregation is paramount to the healing of Black communities across the diaspora, and Britain's propensity for violence — via using Black British cultures as nothing but a stopgap for face-value diversity — makes sure to keep the ceiling above our heads cemented.
Living on the land of one of the world’s most historically militant colonisers is a constant tug-of-war between identity and ancestry, and this sentiment has manifested itself into something hopeful, yet ugly, in my relationship with British theatre. The battle for physical space has been a long-standing fight for Black communities in Britain against Britain’s colonial legacy, and every so often, Black communities are forced into a new renaissance of finding space to hold. The inherent anti-Blackness of our society, and therefore inherent anti-Blackness of our industries as microcosms, presents itself in the visibility of the white demographics that lead our spaces — and by design, curates culture in the mainstream.
British theatre isn’t a guilt-free child in this systemic operation. Arts Council England's 2017–2018 Diversity Report states the number of "BME" (Black and Minority Ethnic) Artistic Directors of a National Portfolio Organisation (being part-funded by Arts Council England) is around 12%. The term "BME" itself being a contentious governmental holdall for all non-white English people forces this statistic to appear progressive, yet history will tell us that this grouping of identities rarely serves to benefit Black communities. And the specific number of Black Artistic Directors leading physical cultural spaces in England is most likely countable on a single hand. The idea of a complete, functioning Black-orientated physical cultural institution in Britain feels like a pipe-dream, with the few that do exist (such as the Black Cultural Archives in the heart of Brixton or The Drum Arts Centre in Birmingham) staying heavily under-resourced and lacking in the infrastructure that is necessary to carry the overflow of Black British cultures, resulting in some of these institutions being forced to close down completely. The failing of The Drum Arts Centre in 2016 by Birmingham City Council is a prime example of the ways in which Black infrastructure is neglected as the cog and springs of our cities. But what we have to learn from this is the extent of Black congregation being a force for change. In 2019, advocates Selina Brown, Keith ‘Cipher’ Shayaam-Smith, Paul Knight, Augusta Ukandu and Kristina Hall banded together to purchase the building from the council to form what is now the Legacy Centre of Excellence, celebrating Black achievements under Black ownership and Black re-imagination.
Theatre institutions, and wider cultural institutions alike, are not physically imagined with Black bodies, Black cultures, Black work and Black voices in mind. So, almost by default, they are often debilitating spaces to exist in for many. Who is there to teach them how to light Black faces on stage? How the bass of this particular track needs to be felt from the proscenium to the bottom of the stall seats? Part of my reasoning for creating Black Ticket Project was around the idea of re-imagining the theatre experience to be one in which we are able to hold space with our entire being because the space has been imagined with us in mind. We are able to laugh from our stomachs and gasp up the air from our lungs because the work humanly calls for it. We are able to turn to our left and our right and see a sea of faces that look just like ours, as if to say, "we are all here, so let us be present together."
The unease of existing in physical spaces holds substantial sentiments, and these sentiments continue to alienate Black audiences from cultural institutions. Broad-sweeping "diversity" dialogue would have you believe finance is the only limitation to Black communities being able to exist loudly in these institutions, but we aren’t new to this; we know the many faces of oppression. At its core, these physical spaces see Blackness as a disrupter rather than an essential catalyst of culture, and this embedded anti-Blackness contributed to the likes of lawful blockers such as Form 696, which told us it was legally moral to stop Black people from congregating, from dancing and being free. Monthly dances set our inner alarm clocks to countdown the time of when we can next feel free, but freedom should not be pay-as-you-go. Black-orientated spaces are welcomed to exist as temporary placeholders to drive up the currency of a space, only to be taken over by white leadership.
Community congregation has long stood as a tool for sharing joy and giving each other permission to express ourselves in a language that makes sense to us. Since Black Ticket Project's birth in 2018, over 7,000 tickets have been distributed to Black young people across England, with no governmental funding to dictate the necessity of this work within its saviour complex. There is no explanation of how this may have changed a person’s life, and no expectation to enjoy the work as if it were a phenomenon. Black Ticket Project aims to create a legacy in which gathering and theatre-going are part of our cultural palettes.
The distribution of tickets to Black communities that have been marginalised by the sector isn't revolutionary or difficult, but theatre institutions would rather hold a light up to the individuals breaking their backs on the ground than think about how to integrate this work into the infrastructure of their buildings. The core of Black Ticket Project has to be about an architectural re-designing of what theatre looks like when built with Blackness in mind.
In 2018 I travelled to the U.S. for the first time looking to research physical Black-orientated spaces and how they are affected by government & politics, socio-economics and geography. I wanted to know if the idea of a Black-led space was folklore. I wanted confirmation that the healing I feel when based in a Black-orientated space is vital for survival. Standing in institutions such as Harlem Stage and National Black Theatre felt like standing on a dream.
A year later, I received an email from playwright Jeremy O'Harris explaining the necessity of holding a "Black Out" showing during the Broadway run of his show Slave Play, which would gather 800 Black people to experience the work and hold space for discussion. Anecdotes of being able to respond in a space filled with your community offers an insight into the freedom that exists when we have the physical space to come together, in which Black congregation contributes to evolving the inherent anti-Black language and etiquette of theatre spaces into a song of liberation whilst honouring the non-monolithic facets of Blackness.
Ownership over physical space is beyond asserting power. It is about redefining structures that stop Black communities from flourishing wholeheartedly and depositing our reparations through rest and joy. It is about repurposing a space that bans the idea of compartmentalism as a method of survival, and instead invites you to live out all of you, all at once. Black-led and Black-life orientated spaces will always be the sanctuaries I will lift my hands in.