- 03 March, 2019
- Linda Brogan
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I Am A Man, Sanitation workers assemble outside Clayborn Temple, Memphis, TN, 1968. © Ernest C. Withers. Courtesy Panopticon Gallery, Boston, MA. Printed in the Smithsonian Magazine. #excavatingthereno #therenolive
I love this image. I have always loved this image. Everything about it is fab: the ordinariness of the men; the age of the men; they are sanitation workers; nobodies; the amount of men there are; the declaration.
I am a man. It's 50 years later.
In 2010 I was writing a play about 2 real twins: June and Jennifer Gibbons. Elect mutes. That means they choose not to speak. They spoke to each other in a made up language. They wrote little books, like the Brontes. They were artistic and nuts, like the Brontes. They burnt their school down in 1981. They were put in Broadmoor. Jennifer died the day of their release. June is still living. Unlike the Brontes, they were black.
I’d watched the documentary with Tom in the late 80s. They were mesmerising. I felt honoured to be writing about them in 2010. The person who had asked me was Polly Teale of Shared Experience. I played hard to get at first. She came all the way from London to persuade me. I felt honoured. I also needed the money. I agreed to write the play, to co write it.
That night I set off with my mind maps little pictures where you let go to see what you are thinking in your subconscious. I hit my Eureka moment. They hadn’t burnt their school down cos of a random inclination. They were living in Haverford West, the sticks even for Wales. I made an artistic leap and decided they had burnt it down to be part of the riots up and down the country. The dates matched. It was July 1981.
Then I hit on this new root. They were having problems assimilating. Or maybe they wanted more to belong then be assimilated. But, they, couldn’t, of course, their skin colour prevented them. I wrote in this whole theme that went with the dolls they constantly played with. I had them watch the Royal family and wish they were part of it. It was also the year of Lady Di’s wedding.
So most mornings Polly would ring. She is a bit Blanche Dubois in Street Car Named Desire: in constant need of smelling salts and wafting with a kerchief. And the minute the phone would ring I would become anxious. The quickest way to describe it is the mistress won’t be happy. I must make the mistress happy. It was bigger than me. It was throughout my being; like a stick of rock. My anarchic side hated her, and all she represented. My oppressed side, I’m laughing, knew if I didn’t give her what she wanted, my black, working class arse was gonna get whipped. Looking back I have no idea who was gonna do the whipping. I think it was the threat of the bonneted middle class white ladies tears. I dunno something inside me would be terrified. But no fucking way on earth would I show that to anyone. So when I would see her I would be extra aggressive; extra getting my own way. Extra no I don’t think you are right. Laughing. But ultimately I always gave way.
It was good for the play. The first 2 thirds are marvellous. Because what we’d being addresses whether we like it or not and coming out in the play is how it feels to feel less entitled to the bitch who thinks, who knows, she is entitled to everything. Even her fucking Green and Blacks chocolate used to piss me off.
So I’ve wrote this play. I’m skipping a bit. Every time Polly would ring, which I said was most mornings, it was doing real damage to my relationship. I’d put the phone down feeling like shit, even though them days I wouldn’t know how to articulate what I am saying today. Cut a long story short, instead of calling Polly a fucking bitch, when I’d get off the phone I’d be screaming at Louise ‘you fucking bitch’ and all she’s asked maybe was ‘do you want a cup of tea?’ Laughing. But I needed the money.
So I write this play. The first 2 thirds are marvellous. Then Miss Teale decides she wants to put her Charlotte Bronte Jane Eyre motif in: Bertha the mad Caribbean woman in the attic. I don’t even know how it would fit in now. I didn’t even know how it fitted in then. But it was gonna fuck our play up. So I grew a pair and said it on the phone to her. ‘That can’t fucking go in.’
‘What you’re saying is . . .’ Polly had this politician way of twisting your words to mean what she wanted them to mean. ‘So you’re saying.’
‘No, I’m saying.’
‘So you’re saying.’
‘No I’m saying.’ This time when I came off the phone and Louise asked did I want a cup of tea, we ended up in a screaming match that lasted 3 days. Still fucking laughing.
They summon me to London so Mistress Polly can get her own way. I’m on the train on the way to be slaughtered. They’re in their office looking at me.
‘You’re very confrontational.’
‘It will fuck the play up.’
‘You’re very aggressive.’
‘It will fuck the play up.’
‘You’re very . . .’
But I stood my ground. I’m very pleased on my way home. I’ve overpowered the mistress. I’ve made the mistress see it my way.
The first day of rehearsal, I deliberately turn up late. I mean late, late. I've had a sauna, done a few lengths in the hotel they're paying for. Laughing. I sit down real noisy like. I’m like a mad teenager. She’s not oppressing me any more. A week goes by. She’s not just oppressing me she’s oppressing everyone. She’s got the twins fighting every other minute, in a real undignified way. I know for fucking certain if they were nice little blonde white girls she wouldn’t be treating them this way. But colour isn’t all that Polly has in her corner. There’s class too. The fucking techs, the fight coordinator, the producer, and the whoever else is there is really scared to drive Mistress Polly to the smelling salts. And in the break we, me, and the 2 black actresses laugh about it, talk about it, keep it quiet when we go back in. Then something inside me breaks.
It’s a mad tiny little moment about who throws the paper on the floor first. Is it June? Is it Jennifer? Whoever does this action is the leader of the twins. Their lines will need adjusting to reflect this. Art is imitating real life again. Because who is the leader here? Who knows more me, or Polly? Well of course I do because Polly can’t know Jackshit about being black. But of course Polly does because Polly ain’t black, which means she knows most about everything. It stuck in my throat. ‘No I am right’.
‘No,’ she is right according to her. ‘What you’re saying is.’
What you’re saying is.’
It went on for an hour.
I met Louise in the British Museum.
‘Did you have a good day?’
‘Oh shut up you fucking bitch.’ Another shit evening. Because I can’t bring it back. I can’t control myself. I can’t control my anger about the white fucking privilege and I hate that saying. But it is working. It is working. The white fucking privilege thinks it is right, knows it is right. And the fight is so terrifying.
‘What’s wrong Lin?’
‘What do you mean what’s wrong?’
Now we can’t repair us either.
So we get the train. I’m in our living room. When I decide I’m gonna fucking sort this out once and for all. Didn’t realise when I was writing the email it would take 9 years for the dust to settle and me to see what had actually gone on. I ain’t me then, now. I may have seen it all but whether I was able to admit it to myself was another thing. So I’m sat in our living room and I begin to write my email.
Dear Polly. I think you are telling the black actors what to think, and you are asking the secondary white characters what they think.I read it out.
Louise ain’t black. She’s white working class brought up in care. She nearly dies, even though Jackshit is gonna happen to her. ‘You can’t send that.’
‘Fuck her. I’m gonna send that.’
‘You can’t send that Linda.’
‘Fuck her.’ And I press send.
Now look at what I have actually said. Go back and read it. I haven’t said I am fucking your husband. I’ve stolen your wedding dress. I’m gonna kill you the next fucking time I see you. I have simply questioned her authority and her actions. Me, and Lou don’t speak all night with the anxiety. The shit is about to hit the fan.
It’s late afternoon the next day when the phone call comes.
‘I’ve been awake all night. You’ve called me a racist.’
I get glorious pictures in my head. Remember the mad woman in the attic, Bertha. Polly's been the mad woman in the attic all night. And I am well pleased with myself.
‘You’ve said I’m a racist.’
I can see the smelling salts.
‘You’ve.’ ‘You’ve.’ You’ve.’ ‘You’ve.’
I have control of myself. I am so pleased. I am so pleased the mistress is foaming at the mouth.
A few hours later her co director of Shared Experience gets on the phone. ‘You haven’t been agressive.’
Looking back I was grateful she’s said that. But me today you bet your bottom dollar I would be aggressive. What the fuck’s wrong with being aggressive? Those are the cards I have been dealt. Just like she’s been dealt the one of politician stealth. Why shouldn’t I just be myself? Why shouldn’t I call her the bitch, not Louise? Why shouldn’t she know how much she is fucking hurting me, upsetting me? Why can she be the only fucker upset? Why has she got deeper feelings than me? Why have I got no feelings at all? Don’t you think I’m upset getting tagged teamed by two white middle class fuckers who are stringing my tongue shut with the threat of how they’ll view me if I get aggressive? Or loud. Or opinionated. Or make my own decisions about what I think. I think actually you are racist. No it’s not even racist. You are actually stupid. I didn’t say that. But me today would feel entitled to say that. You are actually stupid. Because if you don’t allow the two black actresses to unpack what they think, not deliver their lines the way they think, not you think they should be delivered, you are actually stupid. You prick. But if I say that, talk like that, the sea might actually part. The ground might actually open up and swallow me. The whole of society might be at my door with burning torches. I might actually wind up dead. It ain’t that far fetched: ain’t we all seen pictures of lynching. And I am actually talking myself out of where I began. Fuck racism.
Okay, let’s start again. This is what I mean. You know in the Reno, if one night we were in the Reno, and a bunch of people from Jilly’s and the Picador and Cloisters would have come in. And then the next night they were to do it again. Then again the next night. You bet your bottom dollar we’d be pissed off. They’d be changing our vibe. They’d be using up our floor space. They’d be making it take ages at the bar. They’d be using up our resources, Ruining our code. Diluting our DNA. They’d be making it very hard to be us.
No, that ain’t the right place to start either. Kevin Otto commented on Philip Collin’s Snr’s post the other day. What if tribalism comes before racism? I’m paraphrasing. It struck a bell. Yeah. Tribalism is just that. The tribe. Ain’t nothing so sinister about a tribe, as the word racist. Polly belongs to a tribe that writes plays in a certain way. They are restrained like them. They reference past plays, like their university dissertations reference their academic books. We haven’t been trained in that way. We like what is immediate; alive; vibrant, that can change at the drop of a hat. We’ve all been there. We’re laughing, then we’re crying, then we’re shouting, then we’re understanding, then we’re calling some other fucker, then we’re remembering. The arts so far don’t have a place for us. What I am about is opening the arts at a new page and saying this page is ours, and then working it out in a mind map. So far the excavation, celebration, colonisation have all been a mind map. I want loads of people who aren’t white- middle-class, educated, and trained in a certain way to draw on our new page, opened in the Whitworth.