This is how it was for us

Who needs chronology?

I had sort of set out for this blog to be chronological, but I’m about to buck that trend, in response to the Malcolm X Elders performance at the Malcolm X Centre on Monday 16 September 2019.

We’ve been making theatre with the Elders since 2004, and originally we were contacted by a community worker who was working with the Malcolm X Elders Forum to develop activities. The Forum was set up by a group of African Caribbean Elders to provide activities and lunch for older people in St Pauls and surrounding area, and the group had collected a number of stories from their own experiences of moving to England in the 1960s , and published a small book. Members of the group expressed an interest in turning the book into a performance; and the community worker, who knew of acta’s work, gave me a call. I arranged to go over and meet the Elders – with some excitement, I must admit – and we soon made a connection, and a plan to create a play together.

Together with acta freelancer Hanna Lune, I began a series of devising sessions after lunch on Mondays, talking to the group, listening to stories, and encouraging them to improvise scenes, monologues, and especially to sing the songs they remembered from their life ‘back home’. It was clear early on that there would be no script as such – the conversations were too fun and vital to be tied down on paper – but a clear structure and scenario was created, set built, music found, a date set for performance at the Malcolm X Centre.

On the day of the show we created a theatre in the Malcolm X Centre, with 120 seats (all the chairs we could find). The first cast member arrived, took a quick look, and said: ‘That won’t be enough’.

‘Not that many people have booked’ we replied, confidently.

‘Not enough’, we were assured.

It wasn’t enough. As the time for the show got nearer, more and more local people turned up at the box office (a table outside). Soon, the queue went around the building, and the 120 chairs were soon filled. The caretaker appeared, with more chairs, (a little dusty and paint-covered) which went wherever they could. Still more people came, and they went upstairs to the balcony, standing four deep, and downstairs every spare scrap of space was filled with the people of St Pauls. Packed to the rafters with an enthusiastic audience who cheered, laughed, commented and celebrated throughout the performance, staying after the show to share food created by the Elders, and with an ecstatic acta team.

That was the start of a long partnership between acta and the Elders, working together on a number of shows and projects – some of which I’m sure to cover in later blogs. Many of the performers in the first show – ‘Time of our lives’ – didn’t perform in any further projects, but by the second project – ‘Lost Connections’ , we had a fairly settled core group which has stayed with the project since then – going on to make a new version of ‘Time of our Lives’ in 2011. ‘We Have Overcome’ was devised with myself and the wonderful Philippa Smith, and performed at the international COAST festival hosted by acta in March 2012.

And it was this group who were performing last Monday, with a new version of ‘We Have Overcome’. The group decided to re-work the show again as a response to the so-called ‘Windrush scandal’, to tell their stories, and celebrate the positive contribution of the African Caribbean community – ‘We put the Great back in Great Britain,’ they devised with myself and Rosalie Pordes, adding new scenes, new monologues, the events of the last two years giving a contemporary resonance to the stories they wanted to tell.

On Monday 16, they performed the show, relating the challenges they faced without rancour or bitterness, but with honesty and wry humour. It was a full house, 90% from the local African Caribbean community, who interacted with the cast and storylines throughout, commenting, agreeing, and acknowledging the shared memories; the woman I sat next two hummed and sang along with the 1960s ska tracks that punctuated the action.

The cast included one of the original members who made ‘Time of our Lives’, and in the front row was another; who gave a running commentary on the play throughout to the people sat beside her. When the play had ended, and the audience had sung along to ‘You can get it if you really want’, I went over to catch up with her, and ask her if she liked how the play had developed since 2004. ‘They tell the story’, she said, ‘It was just like that; that’s just how it was. People need to know’

This is what community theatre does best; people telling their stories to the world, revealing hidden truths, creating understanding, looking to make the world a better place. Next week the Elders start their tour of ‘We Have Overcome’ to local schools – reaching out and telling a new generation, ‘This is how it was for us’. Can’t wait.