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TW: mentions of rape, child rape, racism, and misogynoir.
Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple is a story loved around the world. So, when I saw that it was adapted to stage and touring the UK, my interest was peaked just enough to consider a visit to my local theatre the Royal & Derngate in Northampton. A Curve and Birmingham Hippodrome co-production, it came to Northampton in the first week of October. Largely, audiences that frequent my local theatre are overwhelmingly white – thus, watching The Color Purple it was a joy to my heart to hear Black people in my community engaging with the arts, because the last time I heard so many Black people attended, was for Our Lady of Kibeho as part of the R&D’s Made in Northampton season. This dates back to 2019, a production I reviewed for The Nenequirer showing that Northampton(shire) arts has work to do.
Social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram showed me the pretty unanimous positive praise for the Leicester-Birmingham co-production, while local critics also enjoyed it – including reviews from The Chronicle & Echo and The Nenequirer as well as further reviews by The Real Chris Sparkle and Northampton Town Centre BID. However, there were elements of the show that caused me great distress, no less than the perpetuation of misogynoir and racist stereotypes against Black men. It was deeply triggering, showing how historical trauma and vicarious trauma are ever present, including when white organisations have not done the work of protecting Black mental health when producing “Black-centred media.”
At the head of this cast, Me’sha Bryan gives a knockout performance as Celie (previous played by Whoopi Goldberg in the film) accompanied by Aaliya Zhané as Nettie, with Bree Smith as Shug Avery, and brilliant musical numbers grounded in the traditions of blues music that finds its origins in the trauma of enslaved Africans in the American South. They sang when “they got the blues” … and as far as performance and the commitment from the cast, I couldn’t ask for better.
However, whilst I have praised the musical numbers above, I did not believe it fitted with the tones of The Color Purple curating a rift between what the actors were saying and doing on stage, and the intonations of the music – as well as the lighting design. And despite the directorial position deciding the rape of a child wasn’t musical material (rightly so), the choice to have it as a passing detail with no further discussion, I found particularly off-key. This is one of the moments that highlights that The Color Purple may not have been musical material and better considered as a serious drama. I did not walk away feeling that bleak, much ado with contradictory lighting choices to character moods. The characters were feeling one away and lights did something else. By the by, rather than skip over the rape to maintain “the musicalness”, it may have been more effective to have done this story as a stage drama (with musical elements, if at all). The horrors depicted at the beginning of the novel are pretty nonexistent in musical.
So, this recent adaptation was a disappointment. Not from an acting point of view but behind-the-scenes pre-production elements like direction. The start of story includes a fourteen year-old who births two children after being raped by her father. So, the amount of trauma that exists around child sexual abuse and rape appear unconsidered when they glossed over these parts of the story. Furthermore, I do question if they consulted with any survivors when doing research for this adaptation. A ‘sensitivity consultant’ would not have gone amiss either, further to considerations of intersectionality and how cultural nuances in global, but still different Black communities, will be interpreted by white people, especially in provincial Little England.
Blown away by the musical abilities of the cast, stage productions (like much art) are often labelled as “escapist” so is not afforded the same criticality as for example – policing, education, sport and so on – we are all guilty of this and we can do better. This may be art; there were no redeeming Black characters, and Black men calling Black women “ugly” (written into the script) in full face of a white audience is cultural violence. In Northampton, the large white audience laughed at this example of ableist misogynoir, and in many ways this production felt to be played up for white audiences. Lots of white people are not used to seeing Black people as full human beings, and I do feel the play draws out our humanity. And by proxy centres white comfort with a Black aesthetic reinforced by white supremacy in media.
Disability justice activist Talia Lewis has released definitions of ableism every year since 2019. In January 2022, she discussed ableism as a violent social discourse that values people’s bodies and minds according to societally constructed ideas of “normalcy, productivity, desirability, intelligence, excellence and fitness …” Lewis (2022) states that these ideas are embedded in other violent discourses such as eugenics, capitalism, misogyny and white supremacy. The adaptation of these characters is only part of this debate, where another part may want to consider how this play has informed everpresent white superemacism pervasive across Northamptonnshire. It may impact how local white audiences may view Black people when they perceive that in this cultural text – ‘this is how Black people talk and act around each other.’
“This systemic oppression leads to people and society determining people’s value based on their culture, age, language, appearance, religion, birth or living place, “health/wellness”, and/or their ability to satisfactory re/produce, “excel” and “behave.” You do not have to be disabled to experience ableism.”Talia Lewis (2022)
In Homegrown (hooks and Mesa-Bains, 2017), bell hooks tell us “We have to constantly critique imperialist white supremacist patriarchal culture because it is so normalized by mass media and rendered unproblematic. The products of mass media offer the tools of the new pedagogy.” Theatre is no different to films, literature or television programmes. Watching the musical, it struck me how the numbers of people who haven’t done the work of unlearning their own white supremacy would be impacted by such an adaptation (yes, as we know all humans can reproduce these isms but in a global western context, however, white supremacy has put white people on the top of that racial hierarchy).
One instance of misogynoir and ableism was underpinned by the three Black women singers (their character names escape me) who were written as Sassy Black Women inherently “comedifying” Black womanhood. Brilliant singers, but were written lazily reinforcing a damaging cultural media narrative that diminishes the three-dimensional personhoods of Black women. This was offered with no alternative. The Hypersexual Jezebel (named after the “sinful” Biblical character) appears in numbers of characters while Sofia was written as the Strong Black Woman. Black men were then written as violent, comedic relief, illiterate, and other harmful stereotypes, and domestic abuser Mr Albert is redeemed to the sound of musical harmonies and joyful lighting.
At a Northampton level, the critics from local media revisited a culture of uncritically discussing art. Stories aren’t just stories but a product of the society that created them, and we are a society that finds it easier to challenge the criminal justice system than it does liberal arts institutions, in spite of both having a say in how Black people are viewed and treated. Despite “Black theatre” not being genre, we need more shows at the Derngate that centre Blackness in Britain. And whilst commissioning and hosting shows about ‘Black issues’ is not evidence of an anti-racist commitment, it would be nice to see more shows locally about Black people in the UK by Black people.
When we do get “Black stories”, they so often centre the US, most recently The Color Purple (Oct, 2022) and Two Trains Running (Sept, 2019) – denying local audiences a context for Blackness within the United Kingdom, while recentring American Blacknesses is gaslighting through art. In November, Dreamgirls centring American Blackness is coming to the Derngate. A co-production between The Curve and the Birmingham Hippodrome, this adaptation of The Color Purple was deeply problematic on many levels that local white critics may not have picked up on because of their whiteness – drawn in by a spectacle of a “Black show”, viewed through a white gaze that is unused to talking about white supremacy as a political structure.
The white audience for these misogynoir tropes specifically – largely one of laughter – reminded me of the white gaze, with white laughter as eased white supremacy. Whiteness continues to pervade through ‘acceptable racism’ where serious digs made at Black people in-text laughed at by white people may show how white people may think about Black people in designated white spaces. A Black man seriously calling a Black woman ugly and a white audience laughing at that is incredibly revealing – a comfortableness in spaces coded as white … and how white people may act when thinking and talking about Black people in private (i.e in spaces coded as culturally white and desgined to their comfort).
“I grew up in a culture of bantering and, ngl, I love a caustic riposte. And while in certain ways I resent the current policing of language, there is a distinction. I hate to break it to you, but a “joke” in which the gag is that the person is black isn’t a joke, it’s just racism disguised as humor. A joke told to a white audience where the punch line is a racist stereotype isn’t a joke, again it’s just racism; if there is only one black person present, it’s also cowardly and it’s bullying. Jokes of this nature probably aren’t funny for black people.”Emma Dabiri (2021: 98)
Art imitating life is one thing, but when life imitates art is another. White laughter at Black people in cultural media texts goes back to the days when blackface was on the BBC (until 1978). To see this platformed by a local arts institution then profiting from it, is revealing of how whiteness is performed and profited from, when white people think they’re not being watched. Creatives have a responsibility and so do those institutions that platform them.
Myself and fellow blogger @haleysread discuss this further in our prior entries about the scandal surrounding Jimmy Carr and Netflix. On that October evening, being one of the few Black people in the audience, it was incredibly uncomfortable. To consider art uncritically is to be entertained from a vantage point of privilege (or ignorance). Attending with my friend, to see unanimous positive feedback from the public made us feel a way, no less than from many Black people. We must always be critical; being critical is not the same as criticising, and those who are critical only take the time to be so because we care.
It is not about individual actors but about the lack of critique of institutional platforming in producing “art” that goes on to cause harm. Another fellow blogger Stephanie @svr2727 talked about misogynoir and the media in her recent webinar with the Criminology Team and Black Criminology Network. Violent mistakes in arts productions show a need not for more historical consultants, but sensitivity readers and empathy viewers. One cannot teach empathy, you either have it or you do not. Extending this gaze to screen media texts as well like Bridgerton and others, it is a further reminder that social scientists are needed at the very top of media … especially those of us that research about race, racism, and other forms of violence.
These cultural texts are rehearsed, edited, and considered by multiple hands before any public audience sees them. So, why are we still having to challenge? Simple: misogynoir, ableism, and whiteness are institutionalised and normalised socially and culturally into our day-to-day practice. No less than in “liberal” arts institutions.
“Nothing but a circus, with clowns and all.” – Malcolm X