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Tales from the Front Line – Talawa Theatre Company

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Directors: Michael Buffong and Kwame Asiedu

Creating verbatim theatre is a considerable challenge for a director; finding and using the stories of real people is difficult enough but presenting them in a way that manages to stay faithful to the speaker’s intentions while simultaneously creating a structured performance is a difficult balancing act. Michael Buffong and Kwame Asiedu manage it with dexterity in Talawa Theatre Company’s Tales from the Front Line series, the first two parts of which are now available to watch on their YouTube channel.

Speaking anonymously to black key workers in crucial roles, this new monologue series is an insightful record of the events and responses of the last few months as the day-to-day experience of the pandemic has brought questions about race, identity, discrimination and social value to the surface. The writers, known only as ‘Teacher’ and ‘Recovery Worker’ speak candidly about their workplaces, colleagues and the, often conflicting, emotions resulting from the events of 2020.

Part 1, performed by actor Jo Martin, is a 15-minute interview in which a teacher recounts the weeks leading up to the first lockdown as the severity of the pandemic became clear and expectations were placed on staff to shield pupils from the growing fear of infection. This later expands to consider how the disproportionate effects of Covid-19 and the killing of George Floyd led to a moment of crisis in her own thinking.

The interviewee creates a vivid impression of her life in the early part of the year as ill-informed urban myths start to spread in February and March accompanied by Government posters about hand washing and sanitiser. Martin keeps it conversational and natural, noting the confusion and failure of her managers to provide any protection or check she was alright. A growing anger develops at being abandoned with little guidance to support her work during school closure while remembering acts of discriminatio she notes a more visible sense of injustice.

The emotional flow of this first piece is visually represented by dancers Rhys Dennis and Waddah Sinada, who perform choreographed movement sequences interspersed with the Teacher’s words. The movement looks at the connection between them, sometimes working in unison, sometimes jerky and circular but pulsating as the Teacher becomes increasingly frustrated.

Asiedu takes a very different approach with Part 2 based on the words of a Recovery Worker and performed by Sapphire Joy. Working as a carer for people with mental health issues, this story engages more directly with the possibility of catching Covid and tending to infected patients, something which the speaker feared, complaining of the “Russian roulette” approach to assigning workers to the Covid ward each day.

Performed by Joy, there is a sharper tone to Part 2 as the unnamed speaker airs their irritation about the hypocritical ‘Clap for Carers’ initiative, a performative act which, she claims, was championed by the same people who voted against NHS pay rises. She even takes a sideswipe at furlough while she worked long hours. But it is the assumptions and treatment of black male patients in her care that she finds most infuriating as colleagues make assumptions about possible violent behaviour based solely on skin colour rather than individual behaviour – “Everybody knows that Britain’s racist” she says.

Asiedu’s visual choices are less convincing than Buffong’s, staging the Recovery Worker’s narrative as a voiceover while Joy silent acts out a series of activities including exercising and silently fretting on a sofa which slightly distract from the reality of the experience. Yet, as the opening monologues in a series designed to run until February, Tales from the Front Line is an important project in a crucial year, capturing the voices of the people who have put themselves at risk to keep key services running.

Available here

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