I left the tent at Walthamstow feeling disappointed, patronised and in all honesty utterly confused. Why does British theatre still continue to dismiss mental health in the black community?
So, I began thinking back to the plays I had seen this year which also attempted to deal with the same issue and sure enough, a pattern began to emerge almost immediately.
“you cannot ignore how these shows simplify the trauma of racism by commandeering black bodies forthe white gaze.”
In May I saw Matthew Xia’s adaptation of Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange at the Young Vic, starring Daniel Kaluuya as Christopher, a Londoner institutionalised for borderline personality disorder. This powerful three-hander between the patient, his psychologist and the head of the clinic (both white men), was a startling look at the impact NHS budget cuts have on mental health services and a thought-provoking look at the exploitative nature of the healthcare system.
Alice Birch’s Anatomy of a Suicide at The Royal Court expertly challenged the concept of inherited suicide, following three generations of women (mother, daughter, and granddaughter). Actress Adelle Leonce played the mixed-race granddaughter Bonnie, who is troubled by her mother’s suicide to the point of paranoia. Although displaying the three narratives simultaneously was a cathartic experience, it meant that her story was ultimately overshadowed.
Now, this isn’t to say that these plays weren’t impressive or had interesting things to say about invisible disabilities in the modern age, they absolutely did. Yet you cannot ignore how they simplify the trauma of racism by commandeering black bodies/pain through and for the white gaze. In Kanye the First although the subject of the story is Kanye, he is killed off in order to make room for his struggles to be told through Annie. This erasure of black bodies and minds is disturbing but can also be found in real life:
According to mental health charity Mind, black people are six times more likely to be admitted into a psychological facility, with 23% of overall admissions being someone from a BAME background.
Research indicates that black people detained under mental health legislation are 29% more likely to be forcibly restrained, with 50% more likely to be placed in seclusion or diagnosed as psychotic than their white counterparts.
So where are the true examinations of the psychological effects of racism being shown on stage, which don’t rely on the narrative of the white saviour?
“What is clear, is that theatre still has a long way to go, not just in terms of accurately representing black and ethnic minorities but in becoming more aware at the subtle messaging of their stories”
It is easy to dismiss Kanye’s behaviour as “crazy” or relate it to his privilege as an artist with money and power by having a young white woman speak on his behalf. In Blue/Orange, Christopher has no choice but to leave the hospital, a decision which trivialises an analysis of his care (which in my opinion was the real crux of the play) in place of a power struggle between two white men already in prominent positions of power. Although Anatomy of a Suicide broke the traditional conventions of theatre, I couldn’t help but feel that perhaps Bonnie deserved to tell her story on her own terms.
What is clear, is that theatre still has a long way to go, not just in terms of accurately representing black and ethnic minorities but in becoming more aware at the subtle messaging of their stories. Art is influential in helping to educate audiences and changing their perceptions of the world around them; a play which attempts to address cultural appropriation by culturally appropriating the subject is not only exhausting but hypocritical.
News of actor and playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah (Holby City, Casualty, Elmina’s Kitchen) being named as the new artistic director for The Young Vic brought with it a sigh of relief and celebration amongst black creatives in the theatre industry, for this very reason. The hope is that this decision will bring with it a shift in the way we explore black stories; hopefully writing which makes black lives and their mental health a priority rather than a plot device.
I thought back to the second half of Kanye The First, during a conversation with Kanye’s manager in which Annie wrestles with the moral implications of performing Kanye’s music for money, to which he says: “Guess what? Nobody cares.”
It took all my energy not to stand up, fling my glasses at the stage disrupting the entire proceeding and shout out, “I do!”