We have been encouraged to bring our “rags and flags” to Talawa’s first live show since the lifting of lockdown restrictions, staged by emerging performers and described as a one-hour theatrical rave. Those of us who forget to bring these are handed coloured handkerchiefs and paper plates at the door of Fairfield Halls in Croydon, Suid-Londen, to shake to the beat from our seats.
The opening moments of Run It Back feature a towering set of speakers lit up with fairy lights as DJ Psykhomantus is wheeled to the centre of the traverse stage, a scaffold structure, with his mixer and decks in tow. An earthquake of a production follows, with sounds that switch from grime to jungle, soca, bashment and Afrobeats, sometimes within seconds, and with choreography to match.
The volume is initially set at 10 and rockets off the chart with a bass so tremendous that it feels as if its vibrations have entered the body and settled beneath the skin. “Bass is the heart of it,” says one performer, and speaks of how its “fizzles” with so much adrenaline that “even the dead have to move”. Before the first song is out, the room is shaking its rags and blowing carnival whistles in a state of euphoria.
While there has been a rising wave of political dramas that have addressed issues of race and inequality since the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, this is the purest enactment of “black joy” – as a political act – I have seen in the past year.
Originally conceived in 2018, its staging now feels moving, potent, necessary. Directed by Coral Messam, it is created with Gail Babb and co-devised by Talawa Young People’s Theatre. Performers include Bimpe Pacheco, George Owusu-Afriyie, Hayley Konadu, Yemurai Zvaraya, Verona Patterson, Johnson Adebayo, Montel Douglas, Azara Meghie and Mateus Daniel. They act as a choreographed group of dancers and occasionally break out into short monologues.
The idea of black joy – self-assertion and expression through celebration rather than protest – sits at the heart of every set. “Take back power,” shouts one performer, gleefully.
It variously resembles a warehouse party, a nightclub and a carnival. When the dancehall comes on, they dance as couples and the set looks like a miniature version of Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock (part of the Small Axe series), with slowly repeated hip gyrations that are hypnotically sensual. “Our parents had it right – one move all night. Hips to the figure of eight,” says a dancer.
But while its central purpose is to fill the room with a heady physicality, serious themes buzz beneath, including misogyny, sexual violation and the confines of traditional masculinity. The place and value of women within this musical culture is a re-emerging theme and in this it is reminiscent of Debris Stevenson’s grime musical Poet in da Corner, as well as Yasmin Joseph’s J’Ouvert, though both these productions have a greater sense of story. Women are bent over as men dance with them in sexually aggressive ways. A man rips a wig from a woman’s head and the other men film her humiliation on their phones. The women retaliate by performing the same misogynistic gestures on the men, rendering them absurd, and lip-syncing to Khia’s My Neck, My Back (“All you ladies pop your pussy like this”) to assert their sexual agency.
The ending leaves us feeling elated and uneasy, with the N-word displayed on jackets in glittered letters. It seems less a reclamation than a symbol of unresolved conflict, and danger, as the group move silently in slow, disturbed mime. Despite the starkness of the finale, the show spills over with a visceral, rousing energy, and acts as an antidote to the quiet insularity of lockdown. “Music is freedom,” a performer says, and it feels like it here.