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Tales from the Front Line Parts 5 and 6 – Talawa Theatre

Reviewer: Emma Sullivan

Directors: Michael Buffong and Ifrah Ismail 

There’s no doubting the importance of this series of films by the Talawa Theatre Company, which uses verbatim interviews with Black key workers to explore their relationships with British society. Prioritising these experiences and these perspectives is clearly crucial given the tendency of the British media to ignore them. The fifth and sixth films complete the series, and are now available to view.

The fifth film uses the words of a teacher, spoken by Adjoa Andoh (Bridgerton; Fractured). She describes her anxiety returning to the classroom after the first lockdown, trying to keep the children in her care at a distance, repeatedly insisting they wash their hands, but then realising just how unworkable such precautions were – when the children’s need for help and consolation meant social distancing was impossible. Later, the question of the vaccine arises and the distrust felt in the Black community towards many British institutions means that even those figures who are publicly supporting the vaccine (the headteacher of the speaker’s school, for example), are privately doubtful.

These kinds of testimony are hugely important, and the voiceover is sensitively performed, but, in its very proficiency, risks obscuring the impact of the words. Perhaps leaving the words as spoken was not an option, given concerns about anonymity. The stills within the film also feel somewhat unnecessary: with images of signs urging us ‘wash your hands’ and hospital doors emblazoned with warning signs – perhaps because they feel like reminders we don’t yet need. But, Michael Buffong, Talawa’s Artistic Director, clearly has the longer view in mind, focused upon the ‘lasting historical record’ rather than the immediate contemporary moment.

The visualisation of the testimony is effective, with Yami Löfvenberg and Akadi Sankofa using the interviewee’s own exercise and dance regime to create often rather mesmerising choreography.

The sixth film continues the theme of self-care, and picks up on a strand within the fifth film about the sheer exhaustion of living so long in a state of anxiety. As the earlier films make clear, it is a state of anxiety that goes beyond the pandemic and includes the gruelling, everyday effects of systemic racism. With writing, choreography, music and performance by Chisara Agor, the piece seeks to offer some kind of reprieve, and the chance to recognise resilience. Performing in an austere, somewhat claustrophic gallery space, which summons the confinement of lockdown, Agor’s voiceover reminds us of our internal resources: the breath that can heal, the memory of nature; while her fluid movements summon an abstract celebration of resilience.

Available here 

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