Sunday, May 21, 2017

The re-discovery of a lost play: of WAR IN AMERICA

Something happened on Friday night that moved me so profoundly I find it very hard to put into words.

It had something to do with it being the dress run of a play of mine that’s never been seen before: WAR IN AMERICA.

But then I’ve been there so many times. 

It had something to do with the venue being the old Royal High School, an extraordinary and powerful and shamefully neglected venue that for many years was going to be the new Scottish Parliament.

It had something to do with the Attic Collective: who are such a beautiful, such a talented, such a passionately committed young company

But more than any of that it was because this is a play I wrote 22 years ago which had been rejected then and which I had given up on for ever.

I’d conceived the play as a sequel to my LIGHT IN THE VILLAGE (Traverse 1991), after spending time in a Bengali village and visiting California and Bangladesh in 1989.

I’d seen with my own eyes the obscene division between rich and poor in this unbelievably unjust and yet inter-connected world. And understood in my heart that these inequalities are unsustainable.

I’d begun to see it as my job as an artist to chronicle the profound changes our world is undergoing, to expose the grotesque incapacities of capitalism to resolve the situation humanity is facing. And try to imagine a different world.

I couldn’t see one play as being enough for all this; and I imagined a cycle of five. 

Five independent yet inter-related plays that would be ready to be performed by the year 2000.

A five play festival that would usher in the new millennium: and dream into being a new way of ordering the world.

All very utopian. But it’s a vision I’d still stand by. My difficulty was that I couldn’t get any theatre to support it. Or even begin to understand it.

I’d almost given up when I got a commission from Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum. I didn’t tell them WAR IN AMERICA was the second play. I just wrote it.

And they turned it down. It was too offensive, they said, they’d lose their subscription audience.

Then the Traverse turned it down. Because they disliked it.

This was the start of a long bleak time. No theatre would commission anything original from me for fourteen years: until 2009, when Mark Thomson (bless him) commissioned a new play for the Lyceum. And that was my EVERY ONE.

I survived by doing translations, adaptations, libretti for operas (two for children), working for radio, and teaching in university. And that enabled me to self fund GOD’S NEW FROCK and JESUS QUEEN OF HEAVEN.

I’d somehow consoled myself by assuming WAR IN AMERICA  to be a bad play, and so its lack of production to be not that great a loss.

All that was shattered on Friday. I’m not going to make extravagant claims for the piece: but it’s not a bad play.

I’d say it represented an important step forward in my writing: the creation of a new, impassioned, public, polemical and fiercely political theatre.

But then the door was slammed shut in its face; and that development destroyed before it was even fully born.

It’s strange to be dealing with this frustration and grief in this week of all weeks.

This week when I am starting to learn my lines for EVE, which I perform in the Traverse this August, and which deals, among other things, with the emotional abuse that blocked me as a performer.

And this week when I am also struggling, with immense difficulty, to establish a toe hold on my new play for Manchester’s Royal Exchange. Which will be the third play in the series.

And I’ve been wondering on this sometimes bleak Sunday afternoon, just how to deal with it all.

But then it’s easy to know what needs to be done. Keep learning the lines. Keep writing the play. 

And look forward to the first public performance of WAR IN AMERICA.

This Wednesday. It’s time.

WAR IN AMERICA runs for five performances from Wednesday to Saturday, May 24-27, in the old Royal High School of Edinburgh.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

A travesti theatre artist who refuses to be silenced

A very determined attempt was made yesterday to silence the performance of my play “The Gospel According to Jesus Queen Of Heaven”.

The performance took place in Taubate, a city of a quarter of a million people roughly half way between Sao Paulo and Ro de Janeiro.

This is the account of what happened given by the play’s performer, Renata Carvalho.

I have translated it in full because it is a magnificent testimony to the power of theatre. 

This is why theatre matters.

"Yesterday we performed  in SESC Taubate at 2000. There was already a queue of people wanting to get in at 1800. The house was full, and many people were unable to get a ticket.
I believe that this is the city that has tried the hardest to censor our play "The Gospel According to Jesus Queen Of Heaven", in which I, a travesti, portray Jesus of Nazareth.

And do you know why all those people are getting so upset?

The fact that I am a travesti.

From the moment I exchanged trousers for skirts, and trainers for high life changed completely. And I'm not referring to the clothes that came to express me, but simply from the fact of being a TRAVESTI.

One moment I was accepted as the intelligent son, the educated boy, the favourite cousin, and a source of pride to my parents. The next I discovered myself to be, and understood myself to be, a TRAVESTI.

I was expelled from many places. My parents no longer accepted me. I was thrown out of my home. I was cut off from all contact with my own family. Every invitation to family gatherings disappeared.

i came to be seen as someone who was promiscuous, made for sex, a second class and inferior category person, a source of shame to my family. They defined my gender identity as a source of immorality. I came to be suspected, watched, observed and questioned whenever I went to certain places. Forwe who are TRAVESTI are NOT accepted in many places and contexts in our society.

I have been an actress for twenty one years and when a small portion of the audience began to boo the play (which they thought had finished) we began to be applauded and cheered and some people invaded the stage to defend the right to freedom of expression. 

I was alone on stage in the presence of all this.  I saw in the lighting box someone making a sign to end the show. I was aware of the situation and was really very close to bringing the show to an end.

it was the moment in which Jesus blesses the audience; and in the tumult I raised my voice in a way I never have before and said "Bless..."

Very quickly silence returned to the auditorium and I was able to give the blessing.

I even added a line which is not in the script:

"Bless the transphobic and the prejudiced because one day we will see the light."

I wanted to say to those prejudiced and transphobic people, there in the theatre and elsewhere, that you will NOT PASS.

And to make it clear that even though you have expelled me from many places you will never throw me out of the theatre. The stage is my home, and this is where I struggle. This is where I resist. From this place you will never expel me.

Transphobia is there. Right beside us. We have to talk about it.

I want to give profound thanks to everyone in Sesc Taubate for their support and for not giving way to the attempts to censor the play. 

I want to thank every branch of the Sesc in Sao Paulo for supporting, being committed to, and standing up for diversity. 

I want to thank the public of Taubate for their welcome, their love, and the messages of support that we have been receiving since yesterday's performance. 

Thank you everyone.

Thank you Natalia Mallo, my director, for trusting me, giving me confidence, and teaching me so much.

Thank you Jo Clifford, whose words mean more and more each time I say them.

Thank you Gabi Goncalves who has made this pilgrimage possible and worked on it with so much love.

Thank you Thais Venitt (I miss you already), thank you Dalia Gil, and Juliana Augusta Vieira, who make such a difference.

We will resist and we will struggle. We are stronger together.

Evoe. Amen"

And thank you, Renata Carvalho, for your courage and inspiration.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

On being an "outstanding woman of Scotland 2017"

I spent yesterday evening with a polar explorer, a forensic anthropologist, two choreographers, a singer, an artist, a theatre critic and two activists. It was amazing.

All remarkable women. And all of us chosen by the Saltire Society and Glasgow Women’s Library to be “The Outstanding Women Of Scotland 2017”.

It is an incredible honour. I am so mood by it. To the extent that last night I couldn’t quite allow myself to fully feel it; because I knew if I did I would break down in helpless weeping.

But I held myself together, somehow, and this is (more or less) what I said:

“It is such an honour to be standing here. I’m more deeply moved than I can say. I know my daughters will be well chuffed too.

It was good of you to mention my late partner, Sue Innes, in this context. It’s really wonderful that there’s a bookshelf dedicated to her name here in the Glasgow Women’s Library. She’d have been happy too; and I also know she’s have got one of these years ago.

Pioneering feminist that she was, she always said “the personal is political”.

And she was right. The personal is  political.

And there is a very important political dimension to your giving me this award tonight.

You’re probably aware that this weekend a prominent broadcaster has joined a once important feminist thinker in asserting that women like myself are somehow not real and that  our experience and identity is not authentic.

I’m so grateful to you for so powerfully and simply and profoundly contradicting this stale nonsense.

I kept reproaching myself for it over the weekend, but I found myself repeating all the old lies I used to tell myself when I was younger: that I wasn’t real, that I could never be a proper woman, that I had no true right to exist.

And patiently refuting it all over and over again.

I know that here in Scotland we’re actually mostly past this kind of falsehood, and it’s one of the many reasons I’m so proud to be Scottish. So I feel a bit embarrassed to tell you that I also found myself spending a bit of yesterday fighting against the thought that maybe you, too, had been convinced by this and had decided to rescind this award because I “wasn’t a proper woman”.

I say this because even though this kind of stuff is so patently false and so clearly the product of ill-informed prejudice, still even the apparently strongest and most self-confident of us can be wounded by it.

So this honour and affirmation is not just for me but for all my trans sisters and brothers in this country and throughout the world.

It’s for the hijra of India, the kathoey of Thailand, the waria of Indonesia, the muxe of Mexico, travesti of Brazil… for all of us. Especially for those sisters and brothers in places where it is dangerous just to be us.

I think especially of my dear sister and colleague Renata Carvalho, wonderful actress and travesti from Brasil, who once again this weekend is  laying her life on the line to perform my “Gospel According to Jesus Queen of Heaven” in São Paulo.

And I think of Dander, a 42 year old trans woman who was dragged from her flat and beaten to death in the open street. And no-one intervened to help her.

This is in her honour and for her memory.

I too am performing “Jesus Queen of Heaven” this weekend, in London, and yesterday I was rehearsing. These lines from the play keep coming to my mind.

They are for all of us, cis and trans alike; all of us who have suffered hatred and discrimination simply for being ourselves.

“Bless you if they persecute you for being who you are. Because it means you are bringing about change.

Bless those who persecute you too. For hatred is the only thing they have. And it doesn’t amount to much.

And they will lose it in the end.
For no matter what they say or what they do they cannot stop the change that is coming.

And one day we will all be free.”

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