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Dance and Theatre

Representing Memory
30th October 2017
Gordon Parks

By Zsuzsi Soboslay

I say to you, my friends,..there are certain things in which I am proud to be ‘maladjusted’..

I say very honestly that I never intend to become adjusted to segregation and religious bigotry… to the madness of militarism… It is no longer the choice between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence. In other words, I’m about convinced now that there is need for a new organisation in our world.

Dr Martin Luther King, Jn, 1963.

I have attended several events in the Freedom City 2017, of which Platforma Festival is a part. The programme commemorates the 50th anniversary of the honorarium conferred on Martin Luther King Jn. by Newcastle University, where he talked to the ‘three urgent problems’ of racism, poverty and war.

At Amber Cinema, Speaking to the Future was a seminar on documentary archives, convened to accompany the photo essays of Gordon Parks [A Choice of Weapons at Side Gallery]. Peter Fryer talked to the relationships he built with Yemeni immigrants in Leygate, South Shields, and the vibrant life inside their boarding house. Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, spoke on the invisible stories behind the images of Byker residents captured in the 1970s and 80s and of her current work with Peter Roberts to develop film re-engagements with some of the subjects. Roberts talked to the significance of tall ships to the community of Wallsend. The joy and wonder on their faces. All spoke in detail of what constituted individual and community pride. As Mark Sealy, Autograph ABP’s director and curator of the Parks exhibition, stated, documenting what is there is the most significant weapon against ignorance. Curiosity reformulates the value of agency, multiplicity, rough edges. Parks’ images of people of colour at segregated water fountains, cinema hall entrances and in interview at the Home Office culminate in an achingly beautiful photo of a woman, her face averted, lying across a bed with her child. She had just been acquitted for throwing boiling water over her violent husband. Without the documented backstory of the poverty, prejudice and violence in which both she and her husband lived, she’d just be another statistic in the ‘Starless Midnight’ lamented by King.

I attended a rehearsal of the ‘Freedom on the Tyne’ event, centred on the Amritsar massacre in 1932. As part of the main performance five rehearsed storylines focussed on different epic civic rights struggles from across the globe were enacted in different venues, coming together in an enormous outdoor pageant at Quayside, like streams into a river of rights protests. In the Amritsar stream, the complexity of the storytelling is quite wonderful, juxtaposing differing accounts of the event, from General Dyer’s self-justifications, to the opinions of a succession of public figures [including Churchill, Atlee, David Cameron, and the poet Rabindrath Tagore] and eye witnesses. The script by Roy Williams* is crisp; direction by Tim Supple is prismatic and a simple movement score created by Debbie Fionn Barr & Deepak Kurki Shivaswamy allows the ghosts of the massacred to haunt the proceedings. Members of the Novocastrian community, of many cultural backgrounds, perform on equal footing to professional actors. I talk with Raj, whose own grandparents were present at and survived Amritsar. 

Notwithstanding Peter Fryer’s criticism of BBC, Al Jazeera and other networks’ selective representations of story, the BBC’s documentary of Calais is telling of the persistence and desperation of refugees in Calais, making numerous attempts to cross to England before the camp was closed. The film captures a kind of advanced choreography, with refugees taking turns in strategies where, in any one attempt, 5 in a group of 25 might succeed. Refugees are shadows swarming onto the highway to create roadblocks, or conducting black market negotiations. Curiously, there are few face to face interviews. British volunteers cook food, distribute tents, and act as sentries as the camp begins to burn, wanting to help but bewildered as to whether they make any difference. Both volunteers and immigrants are represented as groups in transition.

To quote Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, to not represent the truth and complexity of people’s lives is a kind of violence. Representing and humanising shadow histories is exactly the kind of ‘maladjustment’ Martin Luther King Jn advocates. From the ‘rough edges’ we can re-evaluate and hopefully create a different world.

Zsuzsi Soboslay attended Starless Midnight, co-curated by Edgar Arceneaux at the Baltic Centre of Contemporary Art; Speaking to the Future, an event exploring relationships between documentary and the documented at Amber Cinema, chaired by Graham Rigby, Sunday Oct 22; and rehearsals for ‘The Haunting of General Dyer, Amritsar, India, 1991’ at Heworth Comprehensive school, one of five storylines [Selma, Alabama, 1965; Amritsar, India, 1919, Sharpeville, South Africa, 1960, Peterloo, Manchester 1819, and the Jarrow March, Tyneside, 1936] that came together  Oct 29 on the Tyne Bridge. Director Tim Supple, script by Roy Williams (adapted by Katie Ebner-Landy) and produced by Mike Griffiths. 

Image by Gordon Parks c/o Freedom City

Zsuzsi works in Australia, creating both professional and participatory performance events. One of her major projects incorporated the stories of the South Sudanese diaspora in Canberra, where she currently lives. [see Platforma blog, dated April 27]. Another facilitates women once institutionalised in a Sydney orphanage to reframe their life narratives through visual and performance arts. Read more here.