Imagine being in a room. The room is filled with your peers. Broadly speaking you don’t know them. Instructions in an envelope explain that you’re now a Game Show. You’re either the Host, a Team Captain, the Stage Manager or a contestant. This was the opening gambit for Jamal Harewood’s latest production at Manchester’s Home theatre.
The production starts audaciously with Jamal dressed head-to-toe in black. Dreads tied-back and black tape fashioned in an ‘x’ across his lips. He stands calmly on-stage, legs shoulder-width apart, arms clasped behind his back – then nothing. And then more nothing. The space falls silent. If there were a decibel sound below ‘near total silence’, then that’s where we’d be now. Still more nothing. Jamal stares at a fixed point in the distance and maintains this position just long enough to become slightly awkward but not long enough for it to be annoying. Eventually he points at an envelope, this is the most he’ll say all night – the Game Show begins.
This is audience participation par excellence. The envelope provides the instructions that drive the evenings proceedings and the proceedings are dominated and marshalled by the audience. Jamal plays the role of an assistant – think Debbie McGee to Paul Daniels’ magic act – often seen but never heard. We’re split into teams (Team Day and Team Night) and asked to compete in the first of three games, see if you can play along. The first is a ‘find the missing letters’ and guess the word round. We guess. We make mistakes. We make funny mistakes. Then eventually we get one right. For more points we select one of the words and are asked to define that word. This is cross-checked in a dictionary. And finally, for bonus points we’re asked to use the word in a rhyming couplet.
The second game plays out along similar lines, but this time we’re asked to guess what words have been said about Jamal behind his back. Immediately there’s an assumption that the word(s) must be negative. Pejorative.
The final game is Hangman, the game we all played as children only this time instead of letters on a flip chart, the guessed letters are written on Jamal’s bare chest. To win, either team needs to guess the letters, guess the word and agree to shout the word out loud together. So far, the mood’s been quite jovial and supportive but as the letter ‘G’ is called out and consumes two of the available slots ‘_ _ G G _’ the atmosphere darkens, as some audience members elect to leave.
Jamal’s interactive brand of theatre ‘creates communities’ that ‘focus on themes of identity and race…’. Here the focus was on words and how we use them. The dictionary definition of a word may often bear no relationship to its common usage in the real-world. And this is what makes this production interesting. Conceptually the idea of this show was a breath of fresh air, even if at times the execution was a little clumsy. This is invariably the risk one takes when you use volunteers.
The real kernel of this performance was the post-show discussion. This unscripted, unedited section, lasting longer than the actual show, saw real heart-felt exchanges between strangers. People spoke from personal perspectives and there appeared to be a real desire to connect. Issues touched upon included race and racism. Gender and sexuality. Can one use racist language and not be a racist; freedom of speech – how far should society go to limit ‘hate-speak’ and where does this right cross over and infringe one’s freedom of speech?
Upon entering a separate room, a significant proportion of the audience sat in a circle reminiscent of what I’d imagine an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting would look like. Jamal is nowhere to be seen. The more confident of the group begin to express themselves, by praising Jamal’s production. There’s a discussion about how close the audience came to actually using the ‘N’ word, just to win a competition. Then like collapsing dominos, members proclaimed that the ‘N’ word was reprehensible and that its use made you a racist. This was countered with oft used retort that the ‘N’ word was used quite fluidly and amicably in American rap culture. The nuances of language are indeed complex and it’s unsurprising that individuals struggle to know what the correct thing to say is.
The discussion of language and its impact had a far-reaching impact, triggering anecdotes from the participants that included witnessing racist situations and having the courage to challenge them; and society’s struggle with labels in relation to homosexuality and gender.
While no answers or solutions were garnered it was universally accepted that the evening had been well spent and that comfort zones had been nudged ever so slightly.★ ★ ★ ★
Jamal Harewood presents Word + Post-show discussion on 30 September and 1 October 2019 at Home, Manchester as part of Orbit Festival 2019.
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