Last week I caught 20 Stories High‘s BLACK at Darlington’s Covered Market, presented as part of the Jabberwocky Market festival. A Liverpool-based company that collaborates frequently with ‘young people from excluded communities’, 20 Stories High have referred to some of their previous work as ‘hip hop theatre’ and I was keen to get a sense of how they mix live/sampled music and rap-inflected styles of address/performance into their productions.
To describe the show simply, BLACK is a dramatic monologue delivered by protagonist Nikky (Abby Melia) that gives the audience an insight into a young white woman’s inner journey from hostile prejudice towards her new black, immigrant neighbours, to intense compassion and solidarity in the face of the racism that they experience from her community. As such, it addresses potentially relatable issues that can be addressed in a post-show discussion, in the manner of political, educational theatre.
While it achieved all this with convincing nuance, I was mainly affected by the way that this monologue was nested within a (slightly) larger theatrical frame. Melia shared the stage with Craig Shanda (aka CHUNKY), who was slouched behind an array of decks, effects units and laptop for the majority of the performance in an upstage corner. His constant presence prevented the stage from being completely dominated by Melia and her narrative: from carrying us all away into ‘her’ world of intense psychological realism. Shanda remained quiet and unassuming for the majority of the show, but the monologue was punctuated by interludes (most of them musical) that marked leaps in time, each of them at his initiation. As a result, the stage remained separated according to two quite distinct performance modes or languages. More specifically, it was marked by two different styles of address, since both performers spoke to the audience directly in different ways, while barely acknowledging each other’s presence.
While this might seem a fairly conventional (post-Brechtian) dynamic—non-diegetic but thematically relevant musical performance punching holes in an otherwise psychologically realist theatrical world—like all conventions, it works very differently according to context. For me, BLACK was an excellent and rather beautiful example of this. As Nikki’s story unfurled, we begin to recognise Shanda’s presence within it, when she mentions the lanky, cap-wearing son of the black family: Precious. Nikki is drawn to Precious because he’s the same age as her and because his polite but direct behaviour disarms her, and because he immediately sees in her a potentially sympathetic friend. Nikki’s family and friends joke that she fancies him—this is how she becomes embroiled in his family’s struggles—but as far as she lets on to the audience, she doesn’t actually see him in this way. In fact, despite seemingly being set up as her analogue and counterpoint, Precious is strangely absent from the narrative. If Nikki is interested in him romantically, she keeps this from both the audience and (we assume) from herself. We hear much more about his little sisters and Nikki’s dad, for example.
Nevertheless, Precious’s presence onstage forces him into the role of a secondary (albeit largely silent) protagonist. We thus feel the weight of his absence from her account of events and are encouraged to fill in these gaps in her story. The two worlds that coexist are thus Nikki’s and Precious’s worlds, and the stage belongs to both of them. We feel the different ways in which they expose or hide themselves, and the ways in which these evasions and silences cause the other to reappear in the gaps, in a more vulnerable, less ‘self-managed’ fashion.
We might then ask which of these two worlds are we, the audience, ‘closer’ to? How are we ‘included’ in each? Shanda is already DJing when the audience arrives; it’s his space that we walk into. But Melia is the first to address us directly; she acknowledges our presence and ‘interpellates’ us as her confidantes. I think the notion of address is particularly important here. The character Nikki is talking to us in a manner that appears honest and trusting, but she uses casual racist language that makes the audience palpably squirm. We want to reject this assumed complicity. Perhaps we feel more comfortable as Shanda’s addressees, even though his style is more oblique. His interludes move from barked angsty rap to ironic ‘educational’ address, fairytale and a faux-phone call in an African language. Yet his relationship to the audience is ambivalent: does he know we’re on his side? Does he not trust us enough to address us honestly and straightforwardly? Does he not forgive us for allowing Nikki to talk in this way?
The resulting onstage relationship between the two performers is fascinating. Melia gives too much; she allows us to see through her and feel her vulnerability. Shanda doesn’t give much at all, but he is absolutely magnetic throughout. The two barely acknowledge each other, and yet we feel that this lack of acknowledgement is itself acknowledged, as if they’re purposefully keeping a space open for each other. As such, gradually, we perceive them sharing the space and the story in a way that seems unformalised yet intuitive, ambiguous yet solid, and gives a touchingly nuanced theatrical shape to this relationship which is kept so private in the monologue itself.
This subtle dynamic pays off in spades at the two moments in which Melia and Shanda do interact. I have to say, the final scene had me in pieces. [Head to the footnote if you don’t mind light spoilers.] In this final moments, a genuine (and again, touchingly fragile) intermediate space is created between these two modes of address or ways of occupying the stage (using a music-theatre device, no less), which allows both performers to appear together on their own terms.
For me, this moment gestures towards the particularly complex and hard-won mode of ‘being together’ that a successful multi-racial society must be built upon: that mode of loose, improvisatory ‘communitas’ that many people in this country still think (or pretend) cannot exist, and yet is in evidence throughout our society at basically every level.
The piece concludes with both performers singing a karaoke version of ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’, a reference to the country and western music that both their dads listen to.
I especially loved this moment because, for me, karaoke is without doubt one of the most fascinating music-theatrical phenomena in our culture. For one thing, the repurposing of preexisting music always complicates what are seen as the spontaneous expressive aspects of musical performance. If the two characters were to join together in the final moments of the piece to sing an original song, the result would suggest total reconciliation and synchrony (both expressing themselves in the same way, jointly). The karaoke track functions as a pliable middle-ground in which both can invest their own unique messages or meanings, but which still produces the effect of synchrony and harmony. The fact that these characters’ positions are fundamentally different and thus untranslatable isn’t denied or disguised, and yet the resulting togetherness is neither fake nor perfunctory. On the contrary, it is both real and valuable in that it presents itself as such in the world, and thus shows that even while certain starting positions or sets of motivations might be unreconcilable, there can still be effective consensus in terms of objectives or results.