This year, the week of International Women’s Day has coincided with an urgent renewal of rage against misogyny, violence and intimidation. We need this rage. We need space for women to share their stories of harassment and assault, and to push for action against gender-based violence. But we also need spaces for joy, celebration and love. The Royal Exchange theatre’s new series of short online audio works, paying tribute to ordinary and extraordinary women, seeks to create this sort of space.
“Who decides who deserves to be seen?” This is one of the many questions posed in Channique Sterling-Brown’s The Lady with the Spark, a tribute to the remarkable life and work of British-Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole. In each of the six pieces that make up Oh Woman!, the commissioned artists make visible – or should that be audible? – female figures who have been forgotten, marginalised or unsung. Some of these are quiet, everyday heroes: mums, susters, grandmothers. Others are women from history who, like Seacole, have been minimised in or erased from official tellings.
Across all these bite-sized audio celebrations, there is a sense of conversation. Rebecca Swarray’s contribution is just that: a lively chat with Manchester-based queer activist Chloe Cousins, framed by the inspirational voices of Audre Lorde and Jackie Kay. Other artists speak across time and over the chasm between life and death. Becky Wilkie addresses 19th-century poet and painter Elizabeth Siddal, reclaiming her as an artist as well as a muse, while Gemma Langford’s The Last Cunning Woman of Timperley conjures up her beloved nan. In Sterling-Brown’s multilayered performance, Seacole speaks back, offering strength for current fights to end structural inequality and recognise the undervalued heroes of past and present.
Some pieces are more creative than others with their use of the audio format. The most formally innovative offering is Transgressive, Eliyana Evans’ binaural sonic shrine to music producer Sophie and to other pioneering trans musicians. Voice, music and sound form a pulsing aural tapestry that exuberantly honours the creativity and courage of these artists. Wilkie also makes gorgeous use of sound in her piece In Her Own Words, setting lines of Siddal’s poetry to her own music. Singing these lyrics, Wilkie’s vocal register switches between anger, tenderness and breathy vulnerability, conveying the wide range of emotions expressed in Siddal’s art – all of which are too often effaced by the many paintings in which she is represented by men, valued only for her beauty.
Elders, like in Nana-Kofi Kufuor’s heartfelt A Letter to a Mother and a Sister, there is a simpler storytelling approach. Hopping between memories from his childhood and adolescence, Kufuor recalls his youthful awakening to the realities of racism and the nurturing care of his female family members. The structure is occasionally a little scattershot, but Kufuor’s tribute to his loved ones – like Langford’s affectionate portrait of her life-loving, no-nonsense nan – has real emotional resonance.
Intersectionality, inclusion and accessibility are lightly woven into the collection. Each audio experience is accompanied by a simple but striking illustration by Hannah McLennan-Jones, with captions that somehow express pace, tone and character just through the style and placement of the text. These are only brief representations of their subjects, some more fleeting and flimsy than others. But as a whole, Oh Woman! provides a much-needed reminder of women’s triumphs, strengths and achievements – both big and small.