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
Jimmy Carr’s Dark Material stand-up comedy is the latest in a long line of everyday racism that has been subjected to a trial by Twitter. The context in which the joke is told is as follows:
A wealthy white gorger man mocks Roma and Sinti people because of who they are. His mostly white gorger audience than laughs and finds this hilarious. This man’s stand-up is so successful that it is endorsed by Netflix, of which the CEO appears to be a rich white gorger man. Both Jimmy Carr and Netflix profit from dehumanising a marginalised group of people.
If the joke had been delivered to audiences which were predominantly Gypsy Roma and Traveller people this would not have been viewed as funny. To adapt Emma Dabiri’s (2021, p. 98) work, ‘a ‘joke’ in which the gag is that the person is [a Gypsy, Roma or Traveller] isn’t a joke, it’s just racism disguised as humour’ (2021, p. 98).
Carr’s joke should not be surprising as he prides himself on his use of homophobic, racist and misogynistic ‘career ending’ jokes and these jokes are enjoyed by many.
The anti-racist Twitter reactions to this joke could provide some hope that many people are becoming more willing to challenge racism. Some Tweets were aimed at increasing the awareness and calling-out racism. Many Tweets were kind, and others were asking for Jimmy to provide a genuine apology. Although, Carr’s words (plus the support of the audience and Netflix) are a symptom of a racist society, so does the focus on Carr’s interpersonal actions mean that people are being distracted from the broader structural issues of racism and white supremacy?
After scrolling though Twitter there was a clear divide between those claiming to be ‘anti-racist’ and those claiming that ‘the freedom of speech’ is more important than combating racism. This left me thinking,
How do we get to a point where people are willing to recognise that oppressive systems impact us all, but differently, in some way shape or form?
How could people be encouraged to fight against unequal and damaging systems in a way that encourages social change and forgiveness rather than hate and division?
It seems that online activism might be useful for raising awareness and giving voices to those pushed out of mainstream media. However, if focused on just ‘calling out’ individual acts of racism whilst online there is a danger of being caught up in an online culture war and not actually doing much to change structural issues in the offline world.
Whilst the Jimmy Carr Twitter debates continue, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which could further damage Gypsy Roma and Traveller lives is in the final stages of Bill passage. As well as this, inequality and misery is set to become further entrenched with the impending surge in energy bills. All of this is thanks to a government which is a mess, corrupt and devoid of any sense of morality. Even so, maybe Jimmy Carr should stick to making jokes about his own experiences of upper class tax avoidance next time.
Note: Thank you to Emma Dabiri’s What White People Can Do Next (2021) for helping me to articulte my frustrations with online Twitter debates.
I selected The Tiger’s Wife for us all to read for book club. On first impressions the book seemed to be very interesting. My understanding was that the book would be about a tiger, his wife, a grandad and The Jungle Book. I have very little knowledge of Disney, but I did enjoy the upbeat ‘Bare Necessities’ Jungle Book song as a child. As it turns out, both The Jungle Book and The Tiger’s Wife are both grim tales. In terms of The Tiger’s Wife, I enjoyed the elements of humour within the book. I also enjoyed reading about the smells, scenery and tastes of another country given that I have not been able to leave Britain for a while. The ‘deathless man’ character was also quite intriguing. I do feel unsure about this book though. At times I was puzzled about the plot. It is also an incredibly sad and heavy tale which covers themes like war, death, disease and domestic violence – perhaps not the most appropriate choice given that we are in a national lockdown! I think this is a book that I may return to in better times.@haleysread
What struck me about the book was that it centred around death but was largely devoid of emotion. The grandmother was described as being emotional about the death of her husband, but the book was narrated in such a way that this emotion was not felt by the reader because the grandmother was not wholly present. She was always at the other end of the phone and therefore removed from the reader. Instead, the book was lightened with humorous characters such as the Deathless Man and folk tales of superstition. These characters and tales transformed what could (and perhaps should) have been a depressing tale to a mildly sorrowful yet darkly comedic series of tragedies.@amycortvriend
This was quite possibly my favourite of all the book club reads so far, although it is a particularly tight call (4th instalment of inspector Chopra is a gem: but shhhh spoilers)! I am quite surprised by how much I enjoyed this book which appears much to the contrast of my esteemed friends in book club. It was beautifully written, depressing, full of escapism and challenging at the same time. I was truly lost in this book as a story: I am not sure I can tell you what the story is about or what the message or meaning behind it is. But I adored it. It made me think of Big Fish and The Bee Keeper of Aleppo all mixed together (another 2 gems if you have not read them). I can appreciate how perhaps it was not the most fitting for a global pandemic, but nevertheless it is a text that I will most certainly read again!@jesjames50
In a far away corner in Europe, people try to live with the aftermath of a war. The conflict has brought up in the community, wounds that take time to heal and the doctors who look after the physical wounds are trying to cope with the long-term effects of harm. In the backdrop of that, the story of a young doctor who is remembering her beloved grandfather takes central stage. The woman discovers a grandfather through the eyes of others. This is a post war society and many things do not make sense. The author, Téa Obreht, stitches together a story of reality with a lot of surrealism to underline the absurdness of war especially a civil conflict. Symbolism becomes intricate to the story and in the end you are left wondering who is The Tiger’s Wife?@manosdaskalou
I found the book to be hard going. That’s not to say that there weren’t some parts of it that I enjoyed but on the whole I didn’t find much in the book to excite me and at the end I was left with a feeling of …’and’. I found that too often I was unable to follow the plot getting bogged down in, what I must admit, were beautiful descriptions of countryside, villages, animals and people. For me, the story lacked purpose, describing old superstitions, combined with historical tales which seemed to have little purpose other than to provide perhaps a vivid description of the cruelty of war and its aftermath. On a more positive note, it has prompted me to research the wars in the Balkans and maybe, that will push me to return to the book@5teveh
The timing of The Tiger’s Wife as our book club read was impeccable. Leading up to the Christmas holidays, everything seemed to become overwhelming and I felt rather numb. Reading The Tiger’s Wife with its dreamlike qualities suited my mood extraordinarily well. The subject of war, and the damage it causes, is close to my heart. In this book, it is not tales of heroes and villains, but the quiet, pervasive harm which war leaves in its wake, touching everyone and everything, in small, often indiscernible ways. We may not be at war in the UK, but it made me consider what life will be like after the pandemic, when many of those harms are also prevalent. For instance, our NHS workers may not have been in battlefield hospitals, but treating severely ill Covid-19 patients, with a high death rate, on a daily basis will undoubtedly have a profound impact. Ultimately, The Tiger’s Wife is an anti-war book, with more questions than answers, but as the pandemic has shown us, uncertainty does not mean the end of hope.@paulaabowles
From a young age the Golden Rule is instilled in us, treat others the way you want to be treated. We follow the rule staying home to protect the NHS in these difficult times, we are all humans we want to be safe; we want to protect our loved ones and cover them with a blanket of safety. We supported captain Tom on his quest to raise money for the NHS, we have complimented his humanitarianism.
It has been a hard time for us all. But in a time of uncertainty we have come together as a community to support each other. We have all had a sense of worry, if we leave the house to buy the necessities, the fear of the invisible killer plagues us. We have all helped play the part in flattening the curve. We have felt sadness for the families that have become victims to this killer. But we have not lost hope, we are still hoping for a vaccination to be ready to protect us. Its great that we have the NHS to help us if we are attacked by this enemy. The police were given extra powers to prevent us from breaking the rules and whatever the opinion is of the police we have to acknowledge that these powers that they have been given symbolises law and order and the order being the contribution to stopping the spread of this horrific virus which in essence will help to protect us.
I am contemplating on this because although there have been bumps in the road throughout this lockdown, we all have the same goal……… to live. If we didn’t want to live we would leave our houses unmasked, ignoring all government advice. If we didn’t want to protect our loved ones and our community we wouldn’t support the NHS.
I am going into deep thought……….
Imagine a world where you are not protected, imagine being at war every time you leave your house, imagine a world where you are not safe in your house……..
Picture this an intruder walks into your house, is outraged by the colour of your skin BANG she shoots you in cold blood. The offender uses the excuse she thought she was being robbed, she thought you were the intruder. However, she was the one who let herself into your house. The media and the police sympathise with this woman, as she is a police officer. In their eyes she does not look dangerous, the victim of this crime is seen as a danger to society based only on the colour of his skin. She is not arrested straight away because she has a thing that is more powerful than anything in America, she has White privilege. Imagine a loved one is killed in this way and during the sentencing of the murderer, the judge hugs the offender as if she has done nothing wrong and disregards the feelings of your loved ones. How would you feel?
This did not happen during the civil rights movement, this happened in 2019.
Imagine going for a for some much needed exercise, you are jogging, listening to your music, taking in the fresh air. You are thinking about getting your physique ready for the summer. Two men hunt you down like cattle where they shoot you in broad daylight and they are not arrested straight away. instead your innocence is debated because you are a BLACK man that has left your neighbourhood and entered theirs…..
Imagine it is not a secret that your race can and is used as a weapon against you.
I have seen people gossip about the activities of others during lockdown. I have witnessed the police being called on youths that are skateboarding in a skate park. I have seen the outrage of the people who have been reported by the police for leaving their houses and seemingly not following the rules. Imagine going to the park, having a picnic, going for a walk and being told by a stranger they are going to call the police on you and they can use your race as a weapon, they know by telling the police the colour of your skin it will have an automatic punishment. After all, All Black people are criminals right?
Imagine the police are called on your father as he is suspected of committing a non-violent crime. He is handcuffed and pinned to the floor by a police officer. The officer is leaning on your father’s neck. He can’t breathe, he is begging for mercy, he is calling out for your grandmother, his mother…… he’s an EX con, a criminal, he took drugs, he robbed somebody, he went to prison. But I ask this should he have been executed?
Imagine the people who can see this crime being committed, imagine your 17 year old sister, daughter, friend recorded the execution of George Floyd and she could only record the crime because she fears that the other officers will turn their guns on her if she speaks out.…..After all we must protect the police from these ANGRY BLACK WOMEN they are a big problem with society……
Imagine being BLACK in America.
In recent months I have struggled to go on Facebook. The reason why is because, while many people enjoy the platform discussing current issues and sharing pictures, more and more I have seen subtle tokens of racism becoming more and more prevalent. I refuse to argue with morons who seemed to have lost all sense of humanity. It is gut wrenching when you have Facebook friends who think it’s acceptable to be outright racist. I understand we do not all hold the same values, I understand we do not all advocate for the the hurt and pain of others. But I do not stand with people who do not want to try and understand that their actions destroy communities. No, I’m not talking about the ones who use the sentiment #All Lives Matter, I agree all lives do matter. But there is a deeper message to the Black Lives Matter movement. And so many people of different colours have been understanding of this notion and want to get an understanding of the disproportionate treatment of the Black community and for that I appreciate your support.
I’m talking about the ones that use George Floyd’s reputation to try and denounce the feelings of the Black community. I’m talking about the ones who act surprised that police brutality against the BLACK community is not a new phenomena. I’m talking about the ones who have a problem with #Blackout Tuesday, #Black Lives Matter and the ones who have jumped on the band wagon to make their businesses and institutions look like they are progressive when they have done nothing but use oppressive practices keep BLACK people in their place. I SEE YOU!
It is very hard to understand how people have been so sheltered by this phenomena, even though social media has been covered with news footage of the Breonna Taylor’, Oscar Grant’, Ahmaud Arbery’, Jordan Davis’ the Tamir Rice’ murder I could go on……..
So, I’m going to round this post off by saying a few small words. For the ones who I have a problem with. I am not your bredrin, don’t use me as the Black friend when you run your mouth and show your true racism and need a token Black friend to save you from your mess. It’s cool when you want to dance to our music, eat our food, wear our fashion, appropriate our hairstyles and when you have a fifth cousin twice removed that has mixed race kids or you decide you want to experiment by dating someone that is Black I SEE YOU! don’t try and hide behind the smoke and mirrors and don’t use your relationships as a platform to validate your racism. You have no right to talk negatively about our oppression, you have no right to invalidate our pain. Don’t pretend you see us as your equal, don’t pretend we are accepted into your circle. Stay silent while we are being brutalised, stay silent while we are disproportionately dying of Covid! continue to stay in your bubble I hope you never need to call on the Black community to speak up for YOU! A lot of people have said 2020 is a year they will cancel, as it’s been a year of devastation, but I say 2020 has given me the 2020 vision to see people for exactly who they are.