A few Tuesdays ago I managed to make it down to a showing of the sell-out run of The Riots at the Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn. Everyone has been talking about the unrest that unravelled across the capital earlier this year in August, spreading like wildfire to other parts of the country. People remained glued to their TV screens on those few days, watching the city burn, youth hungrily looting, things falling apart; the seemingly uncontrollable chaotic nature of a riot. What started out as a stream of sharing pictures via twitter, BBM, and other forms of social media/networking very quickly turned speculation into a stormy torrent of social commentary about who, what and why. The Tricycle Theatre has since taken the bold and critical move of conducting its own public enquiry, producing a report in the form of a piece of verbatim theatre.
The Riots, a two-hour show by playwright Gillian Slovo, takes an amalgamation of voices and throws them on stage. Using tweets, police accounts, the testimonies of community ‘leaders’, politicians, on-lookers, victims and participants, the play attempts to document a real-time depiction of the riots. The first half is primarily focused on mapping time and space in Tottenham. On piecing together what is seemingly suggested as a factual account, those interviewed begin to more directly address the crucial questions of why what happened in fact did, why those were involved were involved, and ultimately what it means for the future.
Whilst the play attempted to string together multiple and varied telling’s of the riots across class, race, gender and age, the play for me was not immune from the broader problem of race and representation that permeates media, art and culture in Britain more generally.
Representation: Making Meaning
Verbatim theatre is typically based on testimonies and interviews the playwright conducts and collects, producing a piece that resembles something of a documentary. However, whilst it may take word-for-word accounts and thus is not written in a traditional sense, it is still constructed and mediated in its creation and this particular format can have profound effects on truth telling and the performance of creating a narrative based on this. After all, there are no (and cannot be) ahistorical accounts of the ‘truth’ and narratives in particular are only made sense of through the representation that is constitutive of the event itself.
As a student of race, ethnicity and postcolonial studies, I spent much of the play exploring a series of questions that would enable me to critically engage with something that on face value would seem a ‘liberal’ and ‘leftist’ sympathetic account: How does it construct a narrative of unrest? Who is given voice? How are their voices used/authenticated? What role do they play in the broader performance, telling and reception?
Stuart Hall* in his infamous analyses of media and representation discusses at length not only the incredibly structured nature of what we see, but more importantly how we in fact learn to see/read. Whilst many theorists have discussed the conscious and unconscious nature of this process, what becomes central for Hall is the production of meaning of the concepts in our minds through language. Representation for him is no afterthought – it is part of the object and argues that there is no meaning until representation and thus is crucial in meaning (and meaningful) making.
Frameworks of intelligibility or understanding for individuals are entirely dependent on shared meanings and/or conceptual maps by members of a cultural society, and in most cases concepts in fact find their way through language (embedded in context) that can be articulated in a number of forms. Concepts, discourse or frameworks of understanding are not only made meaningful through language but meaning in itself could not be exchanged between us without it (e.g. a pipe only becomes a pipe because we mentally share the same understanding that it is a pipe and are able to articulate that it is through language). However, as Hall rightfully points out, the circulation of meaning raises fundamental questions about power and who, what and how things are represented – what isn’t there or what isn’t said therefore becomes just as important as what is.
Racialised Voices: Legitimacy, Agency and Representation
The Riots in effect is inter-textual in its production, using text on a projected backdrop such as tweets or the title and description of each character as they provide their testimony, the verbal accounts given/performed by its characters, and the use of visual images such as maps, videos, and the physical, visual representation of the characters on stage. It means that at a given moment, members of the audience are making sense of and making meaning(ful) of the narrative through reading, listening and seeing all at once.
Although these were far from race riots, race features more as a material reality and discursive element in the system of representation: from the shooting of Mark Duggan by police and the continued institutionally racist policing of non-white people, to the intersectionality of class and race that leaves people of colour disproportionately poorer particularly evident in inner-city areas such as Tottenham, to the racialization of causes like that of David Starkey’s on News Night where he claimed “the whites have become black”.
What stood out for me in particular in this production was the representation of its non-white characters. Black (and I mean politically black) voices have to be authenticated and justified in order to be legitimate. We see key figures on the stage, individuals based on ‘community leaders’ that provide ‘access’ or inside know-how to the communities effected: co-founder of Haringey Young People Empowered, Head of the Tottenham Defence Campaign, MP Diane Abbot, Ex-Chair of the Metropolitan Black Police Association as well as participants and residents.
What becomes interesting in the use of these particular characters is that black voices are only used where they are needed, and are only needed if their presence in some shape or form is deemed necessary and appropriate. They are issue specific – the head of the Tottenham Defence Campaign not only helps to create a real-time account of the events that unfolded in Tottenham, but importantly mentions that he was there in the 80s in the Broadwater Farm riots, he knows what a riot looks like and more specifically what a riot in Tottenham looks like. The ex-chair of MPBA straddles two worlds – his father a victim of police brutality in the time leading up to his decision to join the police force is key in helping to understand the resentment, isolation and discontent that led to the reaction towards Duggan’s death.
Martin Sylvester Brown is based on Symeon Brown; the co-founder of HYPE and current senior researcher for the LSE/Guardian’s ‘Reading the Riots’. At the time of riots, Symeon Brown was initially called to do the media rounds, being interviewed across various news channels to help contextualise the events that were unravelling. In the play he is presented as the hood turned preppy light-skinned (complexion seems particularly noteworthy here with a number of material effects) community activist who lightens the mood with his oversized umbrella, charm and easy sense of humour – there is nothing serious about him. Despite Symeon Brown’s activist background, his stage character strangely offers no social commentary and merely adds to the mapping of events. It is far from ironic that the only thing I can recall him saying was how he carries his drum around with him and how he no longer gets stop and searched by the police since he altered the way he dresses.
One of the essential accounts, however, that arguably emotively holds the story together is that of Mohammed who lived above the carpet shop in Tottenham that was burnt down. Despite the loss of his home, he is anecdotal, humorous and humanising; pulling the audience in directly into the debates surrounding the rioters, victims and ownership. Even so, Gillian Slovo in an interview with the BBC legitimises our ability to sympathise with him, stating that:”This is a man who wasn’t born in Britain but is completely integrated into England, he is formerly a Moroccan, who likes where he lives in Tottenham, he is an upright citizen, who has two sons that he is obviously a wonderful father to”. Not only is he an immigrant, but he becomes the discursive site of what it is to be a good or bad immigrant and/or citizen – his story of distressing loss is only worth telling because he is a good, integrated, contributing immigrant-come-citizen.
White characters on the other hand are always awarded an unquestioned legitimate agency. The second half in particular presents a sea of social commentators and spectators: politicians, writers, researchers and even a psychologist regardless of whether their standing holds weight or relevance in the real framing of the narrative or event. People of colour are only worth hearing however if they are talking about ‘black’ issues; their agency remains nominal and limited as they undergo an externally defined authentication process.
Some might argue that I’m seeing what I want to see. Looking around the theatre that evening however, with a majority white (and most likely middle class) audience such representation that may have not been intended but accidental or subconscious is just as problematic to me. Left or right, how these characters are represented becomes essential in how the play is understood not simply as art but more crucially as a piece of historical documentation that ultimately shapes a broader narrative of unrest that is racialised, classed and age defined when the audience return to the comfort of their own homes.
Although it was interesting, it was further proof of just how race and representation continues to be a problem in media and art, regardless of how alternative, left or critical the work aims to be – something that white, conscious playwrights like Gillian Slovo need to be more conscious of if they want to effectively achieve the well-intended outcomes they hope for. It isn’t enough to have multiple and diverse voices, taking it a step further requires remembering that representation is fundamental in the making of any narrative.
*In particular referring to Stuart Hall’s Leture ‘Race and Representation in the Media’ available at Media Educationwith some copies on Youtube and ‘The Work of Representation’ in Hall, S. (ed.) (1997) Representation: Cultural Representation and Signifying Practices. London, New York, New Dehli: Sage