Writer, director and performer Sabrina Richmond tells us about her forthcoming show A Black Story, presented as part of Dazed New World festival of live streamed theatre by Applecart Arts this October
Can you tell us a bit about A Black Story?
It is a snapshot of three sets of relationships looking to rewire a connection and heal. It is set in three neighbouring terraced households; one where a Grandmother is visiting her grandson in his hour of need, she hasn’t seen him in a few years. Another household where two half-siblings have a first meeting and in the third household a couple with an electric connection have to decide what they’re going to do about what they are afraid of. It is set in present day and the world of the play accepts the reality of social distancing
What inspired you to make this particular piece at this time?
Applecart Arts put a call out for the Dazed New World festival of narratives asking for pieces that were reflecting on how society might look now in our current world reality. As the shock wore off when everything had shifted for us all in March, I found it interesting to hear how people were talking about calling exes, family members who’d not spoken in a while reaching out, in some cases breaking down and just plain funny stuff like I heard one guy say I love my kids but the order of things is they go to school and I go to work. It has been a kind of litmus test, having to spend all that time together. So, my endless fascination with relationships was one strand, the other strand is the theme of healing a disconnect which recurs in my work because I am interested in the origin of the thing that has caused the disconnect. This time we are living in right now has also highlighted the long-existing inequalities in society disproportionately affecting people of the Global Majority (a term I am adopting as we seek to retire the term BAME). There is some great research emerging on the human cost of systemic discrimination and exclusion. My artistic quest is to explore the ways in which that impacts that disconnect especially within the context of relationships. Weaving into the third strand of having a black life seen on stage in all its layers of humanity. As a Black African artist, I have sometimes felt suffocated by the expectation on what story I can tell. Our work can be labelled ‘a black story’. We’re being told we can tell ‘our’ stories as if they are separate from being human stories. The expectation is with an emphasis on the hardship – problematic because it has cemented in minds that this is what blackness is and yet the focus really should be on this is what a system has done. This point is ignored further as we now begin to hear can we see more joy. As if life is an either or. I think if representation was about being seen, we’d see a range of stories expressing our humanity and it wouldn’t be up to one play to cover all the bases. And perhaps more importantly a black artist could allow for the growth of the unique creative embryo they are gestating without the weight of those expectations. In many ways, it is impossible to separate the audacity it takes to just live your truth as a black person from the weight of the structural, systemic inequality the outside world places on one’s life. I hope the play communicates my desire for the stage to show that ‘a black story’ is about the human complexity of loving and living.
How do you approach making your work? What is your process?
My experience of my world is very sensory, I feel everything so the work I create grows from my body. Music and movement form a large part of my practice so I often write and prepare as a performer from that place and use it in the rehearsal room as a director. Starting rehearsal with a musical relaxation to honour the body, it’s the instrument of performance so it needs that care and ending with a dance out is standard. As a performer, I also play a lot with objects and photography. We attach so much meaning to objects and photography holds our memories so it helps open that emotional world – I am always looking for the heart in every creation. I love the rehearsal process, working with actors, questions they bring, the debates and play necessary in our quest to find and tell the story. As a Director, I seek to understand the body in the room. I love actors, a play doesn’t happen without them and I love working with the bodies and brains in the room, no two actors will create the same performance of the same character, it’s why we’re each unique. In the process of finding things I ask of an actor to bring themselves and offer that myself as a director because often the barriers you face on your life’s journey as a human being will come up in different ways in every work you create so as an actor the journey of finding a character, has to include, in my view, one’s own journey at that point in time. Getting into the arts saved my life from aimless wandering, feeling lost so I am intensely connected to the work I take on be it a 15 minute play or a year-long project. I think the performing arts are for healing so for me it is a spiritual calling and we enter a communion with those we build the work with and with whom we will share that work.
What differences are you finding to making work for streamed audience rather than a live one?
It is going to be the first time I have written and directed a show to be live streamed from inside a theatre so I am calling the experience the wild wild west in a new frontier kind of way because it is such an adventure. I think what remains unchanged is keeping in mind what an audience sees. The big difference is incorporating ways to make use of what is possible in a live stream and most importantly how the audience interacts with it. The audience watches it on a screen so it calls for ways to explore playing to that. There are many layers to it. I am most thrilled that Applecart Arts have the equipment and technical capacity to share the performance well for an audience. By well I mean, technically the actors are all mic’d, the stage is covered through cameras from all angles to follow the action with the possibility to focus on one part of the stage if a moment calls for it. For this six-character story shifting between the three homes, that’s really interesting to me. But a film it is not because we have the actors on a stripped back stage. It’s a kind of fusion of storytelling from both forms I think. It is true that there is nothing like when that audience chatter settles into an anticipatory silence in a theatre. And one of the things I am personally asking is how do I when I am an audience member flow with this fusion. Perhaps the short answer is I will let you know how it goes. If we set aside how abandoned theatres have been, something to come out of this global shift and the theatre sector’s battle to survive is thinking of ways to expand what it means to continue that communion with audiences. Streaming equalises through access up and down the country (and globally) for anyone with an internet connection. I have seen work I would not have been able to see otherwise.
Who would you cite as influences to the work you make?
My most powerful inspiration is my family; in my household hunger for knowledge was good, having a question meant you were thinking and it was your job to find out more. It has set me up well as questioning is central to artistic pursuit. I come from and grew up among artists – poets, ballroom dancers, dressmakers, carpenters, singers, writers. For the most part they didn’t make a living doing it. I spent most of my upbringing in two countries on the African continent. I was raised next to an artist’s village where you could on your way to and from school stop by and watch someone carve a tree trunk into a drum over time and one day hear the sound it made, what would be seen as the theatricality of the market women selling a corn on cob roasted snack or mangoes – its just how expressive the culture is, so my world was always full of texture, colours, shapes and sounds. The theatre of living. I also grew up with anti-apartheid verbatim theatre using song and dance. What is interesting is being away from it all and being othered in my new home, it raised a question that put into action my quest to understand connection. Also you can always find me looking up Rumi quotes and listening to Bruce Springsteen and Peter Gabriel
What do you hope audiences take away from A Black Story?
If an audience comes away asking how they can journey to heal and connect in their own lives that will make me joyous
And what is next for you?
That’s a tricky question for a freelancer during regular times and more so now as we have been allowed to fall through the cracks. Creatively though an abundance has come my way; In November I will share short piece 13 Secrets which the Old Fire Station in Oxford is supporting about a gathering on the eve of a wedding where sexual wisdoms and marriage survival secrets are imparted to the bride, all fun till family secrets come up. I’m completing a play looking at intergenerational trauma with my playwrighting home Tamasha Theatre led by Artistic Director Fin Kennedy, a playwright himself who has created an environment in which I have blossomed in learning the craft. And as Oxford Playhouse Evolve artist, I am working on a piece I will perform about a woman who though blissful in her solo clitoral orgasms decides to allow a man into her bed after 1825 days flying solo
A Black Story is presented on the 19, 21 and 24 October 2020 as part of Dazed New World, a live streamed online theatre festival from Applecart Arts, more information here