White out

White out

28 March 2018

 NSDF isn't as inclusive as it could be – what can we do to change that? asks Ava Davies

I write and think about race constantly. I’ve always been a little intimidated by NSDF, by the seemingly unbearable whiteness of it all, by the apparently liberal, back-patting, congratulatory attitude that it seems to take. I had this fear, before coming, that it would be this Get Out type of insidious racism, the one that shakes your hand and smiles and then wipes its palms on its back pockets when it thinks you’re not looking.

It’s not that. Not by a long, long way. But it’s also nowhere near as diverse and inclusive as it hopes to be. There’s the whiteness of this year’s lineup, as well as the intersection of NSDF being hosted here, at De Montfort, at a university in the midst of yet another student race scandal. Google it if you missed it. It’s simultaneously shocking and banal. There needs to be more direct interaction with the space that we are currently filling with political pieces of theatre, otherwise it’s not theatre.

I saw a show at the Edinburgh Fringe that played at NSDF last year – Poor Michelle’s Thick Skin. My experience of that show has curdled inside my chest, sat with me, heavy and angry for the past seven months. I don’t think I will ever be able to forget the experience of watching it. It isn’t the fault of the writing, exactly; Caitlin McEwan is an excellent and sensitive writer, but the play is about race and feels very much like it is For White People. Nothing wrong with that – there need to be more white people writing about whiteness and race. But there is a section in the centre of the play where a young, white stand-up comedian delivers a prolonged, racist set on East Asian men and women.

From all accounts, I have heard that this was met with tense, uncomfortable laughter at NSDF 2017. When I saw it in Edinburgh, I was one of only a few people of colour in a majority white audience. The laughter was raucous, unhinged, and enormously un-self aware. I understood the writerly impulse – I could see the actor’s face flicker in shock as each joke landed way too well and she clearly wasn’t anticipating that reaction. McEwan wanted to make a white audience feel complicit, not indulge their lurking racism, but it didn’t seem like anyone in that audience felt uncomfortable. In attempting to centre a white audience’s education, the people of colour in the audience were left distressed and unsafe. I emerged shaking, hot and angry tears leaking.

I make reference to Thick Skin, not to demonise it in any way, but to express what I think the issue is with how people of colour are treated in the theatre. We are not centred. It immediately feels uncomfortable and selfish to say that in print, but continually, we are shoved to the side. Yes, Barbershop Chronicles and The Great Wave have played/are playing at the National Theatre (whose National? Not mine), but in the smallest space there. Norris is having enough trouble filling the Olivier at the moment. Why not pull Macbeth and revive Barbershop?

But then there are the structural issues. The NT is subsidised, yes, but it still relies on donorship to survive. The majority of benefactors have Sir and Lady attached to their names and are, of course, a predominantly white group. So inevitably, the NT has to cater to those tastes. As does The Orange Tree. As does Hampstead. Rinse and repeat.

I feel drained trying to write this and I don’t think it’s my lack of sleep. I feel like I should be justifying why I want to see people who look more like me onstage, people who have similar, conflicting thoughts on their identity. I feel like I have to keep saying why I need to see myself onstage, and it’s not even to white people anymore. It’s to other East and South East Asians who don’t seem to get it and I don’t know why. But even though I don’t have to justify my representation to the majority white people at this festival, I feel like I’m just getting a lot of nods and a lot of “mmm, so important!” and no discernable, actual action.

I stood up in discussion yesterday to reach out to other people of colour and I felt lost in a sea of white faces. It’s not that I want a token “race” play here – but maybe I do? Maybe I’m that desperate? I want more things that don’t have the term “minority” on them because we all know that people of colour aren’t fucking minorities, we want more things that don’t just have race-blind casting but actually interrogate the intersections between class and race, we want more things that don’t just use people of colour as if they’re set dressing but actually engage with the inequalities of our society.

Naomi Obeng is my fellow contributor on Noises Off this year – as women of colour, we decided to run a small meet-up this morning for people of colour at NSDF who wanted to come and share their experiences, to vent, to shout, to discuss. It was an oasis of solidarity, a moment where we could speak freely without tone-policing ourselves. But we didn’t want it to just be a steam-valve for people of colour. We can make a change this week, and so we decided to come up with a list of actionable things we can all do (white or non-white) to improve diversity at NSDF. I am tired of explaining over and over again why we need this. You shouldn’t have to ask and we shouldn’t have to say. We need to start working together. This is our festival – let’s make the change.

@noffmag // [email protected]

Photo credit: Giulia Delprato