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The Color Purple, The Musical: What in the Misogynoir?!
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
Lines of soldiers snaked around the airport departure area…
In the middle of the so-called Iraq war, I remember encountering a group of soldiers headed to the battlefield from the Atlanta airport. I was heading back to my cushy, comfy apartment in New Delhi, to continue my doctoral fieldwork. I had visited my family in Alabama and Georgia for as long as I wanted, and so was comfortably heading back to my normal life. Lines of soldiers in uniform snaked all around the airport.
They were everywhere. From check-in, through security, to the lounges, especially where they pacify our waiting times with crowds of sofas. No matter where we went, no matter what we did – waiting, wandering, shaving or brushing our teeth in the bathroom, loitering, or just tax-free window shopping – we were surrounded by America’s finest, cleanest, most highly trained youth. What’s more, one easily noticed that they were far more black and brown people amongst the soldiers than the civilians hovering around. More still, it was clear from the news that these soldiers were only there – armed and ready – because ‘we’ were sending them directly to the battlefield. The same shield on their uniforms was the very same shield on the passport I was using to effortlessly cross all these borders; supposedly they were defending me, too.
“Baby come back! Any kind of fool can see…” -Player, 1977.
I love landing in the Atlanta airport when coming home from abroad. Atlanta is a chocolate city, and one sees that right from the opening of the airplane doors. There are all sorts of regular Black people doing every sort of job, and so I get the Black-head-nod at least twenty times before I reach my luggage. I’m always feeling myself in the ATL.
Of course, like any day at any airport around the world, there are tons of screens floating from the ceilings, muted with subtitles, positioned conveniently around the masses of sofas meant to pacify the masses of passengers’ long waits. The screens show every news channel, and every news channel steadily feeds us a minute-by-minute update of the war. So of course, as a passenger headed east from America to India, I would inevitably have a layover either in Europe or the Middle East, again comfortably cruising past the battlefield.
Only a few years earlier, I had visited my cousins in Germany who were military medics receiving soldiers from the battlefield, making their way home. I knew that everywhere I was going, every nation over which we flew, was entangled in the battle these young people standing before me were about to face.
“Kein Blut für Öl” (no blood for oil!)
In true Southern charm, I had to say something. You just don’t spend that much time physically near other people and not acknowledge their presence. It’s rude to ignore people, which I only point out because I realize this is not the case everywhere, even in our own country. Acknowledging strangers may therefore seem strange to you, dear reader. Besides, how rude would it be to avert one’s eyes from this reality. Bon voyage!
There were soldiers in long lines snaking around the whole airport. So, by the time you’ve reached your gate, you’ve had a long time to ponder the youths’ circumstances, one by one. Waiting there, they see you. You see them, too, and you want them to know that they are seen, not averted or ignored simply because this was all very uncomfortable.
What could I say to any of them, that would not reveal my heartbreak, which is certainly something these people did not need to see. Nor did I need to share my complete dissent from the dominant WMD narrative being spun by the very government sending them into battle. As many marches and protests as I had taken part of in the buildup to this war, I may have even had an anti-war sticker plastered across my backpack. It’s a shame, and THAT war is filled with war crimes.
So: “Y’all take care,” and, “Y’all come back,” were all I could mutter behind my grin-n-tears, what Fela called suff’rin’ and smilin’. War is not the answer.
The crime of war
Recently after yet another military campaign coming to an end, social media lit all over with opinions about what should and should not have been done as military and civilians are moving out. Who was at fault, and where lies the responsibility with. There are those who see the problem as a matter of logistics something here and now and those who explore the history of conflict and try to explain it. Either side however does not note perhaps the most significant issue; that the continuation of wars and the maintenance of conflict around the world is not a failure of politics, but an international crime that is largely neglected. For context, lets explore this conflict’s origin; 20 years ago one of the wealthiest countries on the planet declared war to one of the poorest; the military operations carried the code name “Enduring Freedom”! perhaps irony is lost on those in positions of power. The war was declared as part of a wider foreign policy by the wealthy country (and its allies) on what was called the “war on terror”. It ostensibly aimed to curtail, and eventually defeat, extremist groups around the world from using violence and oppressing people. Yes, that is right, they used war in order to stop others from using violence.
In criminology, when we talk about violence we have a number of different ways of exploring it; institutional vs interpersonal or from instrumental to reactive. In all situations we anticipate that violence facilitates more violence, and in that way, those experiencing it become trapped in a loop, that when repeated becomes an inescapable reality. War is the king of violence. It uses both proactive and emotional responses that keep combatants locked in a continuous struggle until one of them surrenders. The victory attached to war and the incumbent heroism that it breeds make the violence more destructive. After all through a millennia of warfare humans have perfected the art of war. Who would have thought that Sun Tzu’s principles on using chariots and secret agents would be replaced with stealth bombers and satellites? Clearly war has evolved but not its destructive nature. The aftermath of a war carries numerous challenges. The most significant is the recognition that in all disputes violence has the last word. As we have seen from endless conflicts around the world the transition from war to peace is not as simple as the signing of a treaty. People take longer to adjust, and they carry the effects of war with them even in peace time.
In a war the causes and the motives of a war are different and anyone who studied history at school can attest to these differences. It is a useful tool in the study of war because it breaks down what has been claimed, what was expected, and what was the real reason people engaged in bloody conflict. The violence of war is different kind of violence one that takes individual disputes out and turns people into tribes. When a country prepares for war the patriotic rhetoric is promoted, the army becomes heroic and their engagement with the war an act of duty. This will keep the soldiers engaged and willing to use their weapons even on people that they do not know or have any personal disputes with. Among wealthy countries that can declare wars thousands of miles away this patriotic fervour becomes even more significant because you have to justify to your troops why they have to go so far away to fight. In the service of the war effort, language becomes an accomplice. For example they refrain from using words like murder (which is the unlawful killing of a person) to casualties; instead of talking about people it is replaced with combatants and non-combatants, excessive violence (or even torture) is renamed as an escalation of the situation. Maybe the worst of all is the way the aftermath of the war is reflected. In the US after the war in Vietnam there was a general opposition to war. Even some of the media claimed “never again” but 10 year after its end Hollywood was making movies glorifying the war and retelling a different rendition of events.
Of course the obvious criminological question to be asked is “why is war still permitted to happen”? The end of the second world war saw the formation of the United Nations and principles on Human Rights that should block any attempt for individual countries to go to war. This however has not happened. There are several reasons for that; the industry of war. Almost all developed countries in the world have a military industry that produces weapons. As an industry it is one of the highest grossing; Selling and buying arms is definitely big business. The UK for example spends more for its defence than it spends for the environment or for education. War is binary there is a victor and the defeated. If a politician banks their political fortunes on being victorious, engaging with wars will ensure their name to be carved in statues around cities and towns. During the war people do not question the social issues; during the first world war for example the suffragettes movement went on a pause and even (partly) threw itself behind the war effort.
What about the people who fight or live under war? There lies the biggest crime of all. The victimisation of thousands or even millions of people. The civilian population becomes accustomed to one of the most extreme forms of violence. I remember my grandmother’s tales from the Nazi occupation; seeing dead people floating in the nearby river on her way to collect coal in the morning. The absorption of this kind of violence can increase people’s tolerance for other forms of violence. In fact, in some parts of the world where young people were born and raised in war find it difficult to accept any peaceful resolution. Simply put they have not got the skills for peace. For societies inflicted with war, violence becomes currency and an instrument ready to be used. Seeing drawings of refugee children about their home, family and travel, it is very clear the imprint war leaves behind. A torched house in a child’s painting is what is etched in their mind, a trauma that will be with them for ever. Unfortunately no child’s painting will become a marble statue or receive the honours, the politicians and field marshals will. In 9/11 we witnessed people jumping from buildings because a place crashed into them; in the airport in Kabul we saw people falling from the planes because they were afraid to stay in the country. Seems this crime has come full circle.
Another Lone Gunman #BlackenAsiaWithLove #SpOkenWoRd
A lone gunman killed numerous people at a public place in America.
Another lone gunman shot up a school, another a nightclub, and
Another killed a kid walking down the street.
A few years ago,
Another lone gunman shot up a movie premier, dressed as one of the film’s villains.
Another – armed with a badge-
Took a woman’s life after a routine traffic stop.
Plenty of his comrades routinely did the same.
Another lone gunman in blue, killed a kid playing in the park, and
Another shot a man who was reaching for his wallet as he’d demanded.
Another shot a man with his kid in the backseat, while his girlfriend live-streamed it, and
Another took 8 minutes and 46 seconds to kill again.
Another watched while it happened, while
Another kept the crowd at bay.
Another. And another, and
Last week, in another American city, another lone gunman murdered more.
The lone gunman in blue responsible for safely apprehending this latest lone gunman said: This poor lone gunman just had “a bad day.”
We bide our time till next week’s breaking news.