I wish someone had asked me: How do representations of young, working class black men manifest theatrically?
Or, perhaps: What does African masculinity look like in contemporary theatre?
It would have allowed me to seamlessly weave in an anecdote to start this article. Plus, it would have made me happy. The topic is my current fave given that I’m working on Green Door Theatre Company’s production of the Sydney premiere of the brilliant Arinzé Kene’s Good Dog.
I haven’t had the chance to have those conversations with other Afro-diasporic makers, shakers and theatre lovers. That’s the nature of theatre in diaspora. It’s dispersed. Sunshine chats and cultural exchange over coffee are hard to arrange, hard to come by.
The dispersed nature of the Afro-diasporic performance movement manifests in the content, form and style of the works being produced.
Often the works have theatrically curated fragments and are solo performance.
Reflecting the rates of suicide, substance abuse and general isolation of African Black men across the west, the work is often cutting, funny and is deeply insightful. These performance works break down the isolation in the storytelling process, hold a space for Black men’s vulnerability and a physical place of community gathering.
Afro-diasporic performance in Australia is going from strength to strength and is connected to the movements and themes of Afro-diasporic performance work throughout the West.
Wani Le Frère and Oliver Twist are two, theatrically diverse, Australian Afro-diasporic and award-winning makers. They’re connected to the Zeitgeist, and both, dramaturgically, work with fragment and solo performance.
Naarm-based performance maker wani Le Frère’s work is poetic with punch and nuance. Generally solo and episodic, spanning time and place, he pays homage to the incredible lineages of African storytelling while having a thoughtful relationship with African blackness on Blak (First Nations) land.
Sydney-based performance maker Oliver Twist creates wry, hilarious work that is also episodic. It is a modern meeting of Central-East African storytelling lineages with the contemporary story-based stand up that Australia loves.
Twist makes the newsworthy trivial. He takes the trivialities of his life and makes them monumental. In doing so, he makes people laugh and challenges the limited perception of African masculinities in the Australian cultural imaginary. All this he does while highlighting the importance of Afro-diasporic communities’ engagement in reconciliation with First Nations communities.
Their work is wildly different, but I have been reflecting on some of the unifying features of this … what’s that word? Zeitgeist!
Arinzé Kene does similar things in Good Dog, a solo performance.
His subject is a Black boy in a hoodie on a South London estate. A staple image in the imagination of modern London, but this is different: The Boy has a voice.
Kene writes an authentic, deeply nuanced, epic story of the years leading up to a resistance – some would call riots – in the face of racist, police brutality.
The hoodie and the South London estate are deliberate. Former British Prime Minister David Cameron used “hoodie” as a derogatory descriptor, with racial overtones, to justify increased police presence in estates, which are regularly mythologised as intrinsically dangerous.
It is a beautiful, important play.
How do representations of Black masculinities manifest theatrically? With multiplicity, in a million ways.
It is crucial that Afro-diasporic men have the opportunity to speak for themselves, about themselves – especially in societies that are only mildly interested in ideas of Black men, are simultaneously frightened by them, and rarely speak to them.
Theatre and live performance is a site where these autonomous, invigorating and fabulously entertaining conversations can start. We’re lucky to listen.
Good Dog plays at Kings Cross Theatre until November 16. Justin Amankwah stars. Rachel Chant directs.
Rebekah Robertson is an Afro-diasporic, Western Sydney-based arts worker and maker.