After seeing Shuck ‘N’ Jive at Soho Theatre a couple of weeks ago (CLICK HERE for our review written by Rosario Blue) I was moved to the core by its ability to unpack so many social stigmas, both in the theatre and in the everyday life of a black woman – and in such a short space of time (pretty much does the homework for anyone who hasn’t bothered Googling ‘racial micro-aggression’ for example)!
I arranged to meet with the co-writer, Cassiopeia Berkeley-Agyepong (Simone Ibbett-Brown we’re sorry to have missed you!) and cast, Olivia Onyehara and Tanisha Spring, for a conversation which delves a little deeper into the process of writing the piece, and using comedy to display everyday racial inequalities very much alive in the theatre industry…
The Soho Girl: What inspired you to begin the process of creating Shuck ’N’ Jive?
Cassi: An initial story that sparked it all was a really funny audition anecdote. And I was like, this is hilarious, it should be a show. We started collating different ideas and things that happened to us. And once they all pile up you realise it’s actually not that funny. The process of writing also informed the content of the play, and it was like a back and forth between this really fun thing ‘this is our experience as being black women, isn’t it hilarious? but also awful!’ And actually the writing itself, and exploring that, is a really interesting way to get people to examine their own behaviour.
I thought the two of you played your roles so intensely, I was almost wondering if you were telling your own story! And I guess maybe parts of it is. Can you share a bit about that – bringing your own story to the character?
Olivia: I think there are very few people who touch the industry and don’t recognise at least one of the things that’s happened in this piece, so everything feels shared. And I think what’s amazing about what Cassi and Simone have created within this friendship, it’s not only their friendship but their shared experience. And because we are both in the industry, our experience is such. So everybody who read the script was nodding that night, noting that a lot of it is true.
Tanisha: We didn’t grow up watching theatre as a family. It was it something so far removed from us that, I guess we grew up feeling like there wasn’t a part for us there and I didn’t feel like there was going to be a part for me in theatre. It was never really in my view until my friend was auditioning for it. So it was something that I was very aware of, that there were very few people who looked like me, and represented me as me – not a stereotype. And it’s something that I’ve – well, most of us, grow up being very aware the way you walk into a room, how people perceive you and what they expect you to do, to how you actually are. Especially going into the industry, you investigate it even more because you’re challenged by it every single day by the questions, the type cast they invited into audition rooms for… it’s constant from everyday life and casting directors who want you to think a certain way, or don’t think you can speak another way because they already have these preconceived ideas of who you are as a complete human being. For some reason we’re unable to be as flexible as the next person.
The Soho Girl: You showed that so well especially towards the last scene where you did the stereotype of two black friends text talking… And then you went into they reality of it, and I thought ‘oh how refreshing is that?’ You guys covered so much on social stigmas and broke it down in such a short space of time. I was like, how did they do that?!
Olivia: What the writing does is, you get to go; ‘oh my gosh I know exactly what they’re talking about’ or I would hope people come away from it going ‘I’ve done that – I’ve definitely done that!’ What I think is addressed really well is this idea of “BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic)” being the flavour of the month at the minute. I get told “oh my agent told me I’m lucky to get this because I’m not…” There’s something about the flexibility of the arts that allows you to feel that they can say these things like. I remember being actively told the drama school; if you are working, it’s because of (insert race, gender, class etc) And if you’re not you must be really bad! If it you were talking about any other people from any other part of the world, you really need to clock yourself and realise that what you’re saying is not appropriate.
Tanisha: The main reason I think this show is so important and how the subjects are addressed, it that most people that say these things they don’t mean any harm by it. They consciously think it’s just the way it’s always been. Or they might consider themselves really understanding. Like some of the comments in the micro-aggressions section, they’re making compliments but it’s so wrong in how they worded it. I’d had a couple of times I’ve had ‘oh you’re pretty for a black girl’. The first time I heard I went ‘Oh thanks’…. But, so I’m not expected to be? But they generally mean it as a compliment. It’s shows like this that make people sit and hear it being said – to them. So you see it in a completely different light, especially seeing everyone else’s reactions due to the way the stage is layout. A lot of people spoke about that.
The Soho Girl: What has been some of the things people have said, particularly about the audience facing each other?
Tanisha: A lot of people notice other people’s reactions, and questioning whether they’re going to laugh, or do they feel uncomfortable?
Olivia: I had a few friends who said they really loved the set up because watching the other side of the audience is really interesting.
The Soho Girl: For me, what Cassi was saying earlier about the comedy aspect; its funny buy actually that’s really sad – I felt that. I don’t know how I felt about facing that particular white woman constantly laughing. I know it’s funny, but after a while I felt sensitised as the play is hitting so many home truths that I’d sort of buried inside as a black woman who has to face everyday life. Even being aware of all these things because it’s my lived experience too, it was refreshing to have the play advocate on what what I’ve become tired of speaking about to white people; race.
Olivia: I think one of the great things that constantly happens with the writing is that, people are allowed to laugh… Then they aren’t. Not that they’re not allowed to laugh, but it changes so quickly that it’s almost like the lesson is handed. I know what you mean, sometimes you’re like, ‘well I don’t think anyone should be laughing right now’ –
The Soho Girl: Like, it’s my space – unless I’m laughing you’re now allowed to!
Olivia cont’d: I think what’s amazing is that (laughter) allows the lesson to be handed over because all the defences are down, and then they’re faced with something that they can’t ignore. Sometimes the laugher is from being uncomfortable. You get some laughter and you’re like, I know that you’re not belly laughing! It also depends on the type of audience.
Tanisha: The way even the play works timing-wise, it’s like we’re laughing and then we go – no that’s not ok. My family came over in Windrush, and they had to just get on with it – ideal with it, and put up their defences, it’s just a way of life. And then it was, ‘ok we’re taking some back and we can laugh at ourselves’, and now people are finally saying ‘actually it’s not ok. This is our expectation, and this is what we feel like you can say and can’t say’ – and it’s finally being said. That’s where it composes nicely in this small and time, the stages of generations that have had to deal with this sort of thing.
Olivia: And it’s ok for us to have exceptions of what is and what is not ok. You’re finally allowed to say, actually it’s not ok to say without anybody questioning ‘why are you being so sensitive’… Why can’t I be? Why do I have to be emotionless? Everything is brought up in the writing.
The Soho Girl: I want to address identity, and some of the other subjects touched in your role. Olivia, you play a mixed-race woman who identifies as black. Do you identify as black by the way?
Olivia: Yeah, now I do. I do refer to myself is black. Obviously I am mixed, I am of dual heritage, but that’s how I identify because that’s how my experiences growing up shaped my identity. Because where I grew up was mostly predominately white, it was one of those things where you feel like you get your race handed to you, outside of the home. Now there’s a language where we talk about colourism, but back then there just wasn’t. I felt like the only place I would draw the language to be able to deal with it was Malcom X, Maya Angelou, and those books were the things that shaped my growing up and my identity.
The Soho Girl: I love talking about identity because it’s often ignored how multifaceted black people are. I think even being visibly black, there’s a process to accepting your ‘blackness’. Like you said, the process of what shapes you; the books, the lived experience, your heritage – I always find it fascinating.
Olivia: The frame that was given to me was out of my control. So it didn’t matter what I didn’t see on TV, or the only things I saw in the theatre – I was always different, I was always ‘other’. You have to be sensitive, and sometimes people do want to challenge (your identity). I’ve had white girls say (about identifying as black) ‘you can’t say that’. But actually it’s not for you, or anyone to say how anybody identifies right? As long I’m aware of the privilege and perceived privilege, then I just have to draw on my own experiences. Me and Simon had a really interesting conversation about it in the play because they do, and she does refer to herself as black all the way through.
The Soho Girl: And for you Tanisha, in terms of being a black woman, and a dark skin black woman, I’m sure you have your own set of challenges.
Tanisha: Oh yeah! My family is very mixed. My Nan is mixed race, a lot of my cousins are dual heritage and I’m one of the darkest (skin complexion) in my family so I was very aware of the different treatment that was got, even from my twin sister. I was very aware of the differences that were that were placed upon us and during my school.
The Soho Girl: Is your twin the same complexion as you?
Tanisha: No she’s lighter. I’m literally the darkest in my family. Well, me and my dad. Which now I love!
The Soho Girl: That’s a process isn’t it? I grew up with a lighter skin older sister who also happened to very likeable and I equated her popularity to her being fair in complexion. I was a process to be accepting of myself – my dark skin and unlearning what society deems as beautiful (closer to whiteness), and that only came in my late teens.
Tanisha: It was a massive process! And I hated it being referred to as a black girl. I was just a girl. Why did I have to be a black girl? Because once you put ‘black girl’ in it, there was a list of things that people expected. I remember in one of my year books someone put ‘oh you’re not like the others.’ What does that even mean? Like the others?!
I’d say it’s since starting in musical theatre where I’ve found it’s pigeonholed even more so, that I just went; ‘No actually, I am a black woman and I’m not what you expect me to be.’ I’ve always been very proud of being a black woman but I didn’t want people to label me. Actually label me and I’ll show you what is!
It’s literally only been in the last 5 years that I’ve been ok with saying to myself, yes (being a black woman) does define me. It’s been a massive challenge through a lot of my life generally to the point where now I’m taking all these challenges and I’m going to throw it back in your face almost. Generally, I think it it’s nice to invite people into those moments and allow them to see ‘this happens’. I’m ok that you don’t get it the first time round. But you will.
The Soho Girl: What do you want people to take away?
Cassi: I think what’s so important is the idea that you’ve got these two women and they are different. What we loved about creating it was a chance have these two women who, in the eyes of the industry are all the same, and yet they respond to things differently and they have different interests. There’s a common desire to change things through theatre which they share, but actually, how they interpret the world and how they deal with what is different. I think that’s a really important thing to put on stage. And I think it’s great visual reference in this production. I feel like it’s really hard for people to leave the theatre and be like, ‘well all black people are the same’. That for me is an important thing, and it’s a joy to watch the show every night and see that conversation happen.
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