How often in life do we have real conversations about things that actually matter? So often the real and the meaningful come to the fore only when someone is hurt. It is pain that makes us cry out, it is sadness or grief or loss or loneliness or any other thing that becomes unbearable that makes us open up to our friends, family or loved ones in a more than ordinary way. Opting in to listen and commune with the suffering of one or many is a powerful opportunity to feel connected, to feel alive and to align yourself with something that actually matters to the world at large.
The murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 was such a moment. It had an impact on people across the Globe in a previously unprecedented manner. As someone that is, admittedly, a bit slow emotionally, it took me a while to wake up to the waves of anger, sadness, frustration and pain that people were giving voice to all around me at that time. I was happily cocooned in a ground-floor flat with garden access and had the love of my life to share it with. The outside world trickled in but slowly. What is more, I was only gradually able to appreciate how the colour of my skin (pale pinkish beige) and the racial category it assigned me to (white) had further insulated me from anywhere near the level of rejection, discrimination, dehumanisation felt by many of those around me that were now going to the streets and protesting.
I had a choice to make: close the book of suffering that life was writing all around me and opt out. Opt out of what was surfacing in the world and focus on my own backyard – revelling in everything reassuring . While it would have meant sticking my head very firmly in the sand (probably literally) and ignoring all of my better instincts (listening, caring, empathising, engaging), opting out was nevertheless an option that would permit me to focus on the known quantities in my life. This is a well-trodden route many of us walk every day: rejecting the foreign and embracing the familiar.
Alternatively, I could open myself to the world at large, opt in and stand in solidarity with all those friends, kindred spirits and fellow humans near and far that were suffering. The choice, once weighed, was clear and decisive. But here’s the thing: it’s not exactly easy. Opting in means actually taking the protests seriously, taking time to understand what was being called for, opening up to the emotions that people were feeling, critically re-evaluating how much I was contributing to the problem and what more I could do to be part of the solution.
For the past six weeks I have been working on a show that deals with all the difficulties and all the joys of opting in. I am a theatre maker and I have tried to channel all my learning since May 25, 2020 into a show that is at once joyous and deeply felt, considered and filled with a desire to commune with the truth of current suffering. The show is both an adaptation of Jane Austen’s regency era masterpiece, Mansfield Park, and a conversation about the continuing legacies of the trans-atlantic slave trade. It features an all black cast of London-based actors and is performing to majority white audiences at the Watermill Theatre, Newbury.
Yes, this show is on the front line of the culture wars. We take Jane Austen and talk about historic slavery. We talk about sugar and show you the processes that first made it into a commodity. You would think that audiences would up and run from this Woke Brigade taking over their much loved local theatre. But, in fact, audiences have been enthusiastic, engaged and dancing in the aisles. Because – here is the thing: theatre is an act of communion, of sharing stories and leaning in and learning from each other. If you let go of what you thought you once new, let go of wanting to control the narrative and allow those whose pain is most acute to speak… If you opt in to listening, seeing, experiencing, you will find yourself healed and nourished! The experience will allow you to commune with the human spirit in a way that only the best art does.
Arne Pohlmeier is a theatre maker and co-artistic director of theatre company Two Gents Productions.
Mansfield Park, adapted and directed by Tonderai Munyevu and Arne Pohlmeier, performed by Nicholle Cherrie, Anni Domingo, Duramaney Kamara, Wela Mbusi and Velile Tshabalala opened at the Watermill Theatre last Wednesday, June 28 and is on until Saturday, July 8, 2023.
Tickets at https://www.watermill.org.uk/mansfield_park