Corey Campbell reflects on how theatres can be effective Black Lives Matter allies
Over the last few days, theatres and arts organisations across the country have begun to use their platforms to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
I applaud the sentiment and the apparent desire for change, but as someone who has been actively working towards better representation and understanding both in the arts and in society as a whole for several years now, I know as well as anyone that the work to be done goes well beyond a show of support on social media.
For both my own company, Strictly Arts Theatre, and the Belgrade Theatre, where I am now a Co-Artistic Director, this is not a new conversation. In 2017, as part of its Springboard talent development initiative, the Belgrade Theatre supported Strictly Arts to create and perform our show Freeman – a show that dealt directly with the deaths of Black British people in police custody.
When we look at the news headlines about the murders of men like Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, or see the footage of riots and protests in the US, there’s a temptation to see the violence as an American issue – as something shocking, but as something which nonetheless doesn’t directly concern us.
By drawing parallels between a landmark legal case in America and the ongoing treatment of Black prisoners both here in Britain and around the world, Freeman set out to demonstrate that this is an international problem, and one that requires all of us – Black, white or brown – in all countries, to work together to resolve.
Some of the most moving footage I have seen in recent days has shown police officers putting down their riot gear and marching together with Black protestors; of white allies creating a physical barrier to protect Black protestors from less sympathetic officers.
True allyship is not simply about voicing your concern and being seen to do the right thing; it’s about standing up for the rights of your fellow human beings, even when that involves taking on some risk to yourself.
To make an equivalence between those actions and a theatrical production would be ridiculous and wrong, but for me as an emerging Black artist, it was a powerful thing to be given financial backing and a platform by a major producing venue for what was widely considered a “risky” show – a show from an unknown company, that was unafraid to make strong and pointed political statements.
The Belgrade Theatre took that risk with me, and has continued to support me ever since. We started Strictly Arts to create work like Freeman that speaks to our shared humanity. And, while my other productions have not been directly about police treatment of Black people, I think I can honestly say that the fire that burned at the heart of Freeman – that passion that made the show a “risk” – has burned in all the work I have done, before and since.
For me, Black Lives Matter is not an abstract concept. For me, this isn’t just about two or three high-profile cases – as individually horrifying as those stories are. For me, this is about decades of violence and poverty and trauma endured by people who look like me. It’s about the friends and family that I lost growing up here in the West Midlands. It’s about the innocent 10-year-old boy in Brazil that a colleague told me had been shot by police at his home this week. It’s about the conversations I have been forced to have with my own son when he asked me what I would have done in a situation like George Floyd’s or Ahmaud Arbery’s. It’s about the racist abuse that was hurled at me and the members of my company by men in the street after our first performance of Freeman in Edinburgh.
When we made Freeman in 2017, I was harrowed by some of the stories that we researched and included in the show, but not surprised. Some of them were from a long time ago, but many were much too recent. In 2020, I’m disgusted that we are still having the same conversation over and over. I was angry when we made Freeman; now I’m exhausted.
Since its original run at the Belgrade in 2017, Freeman has gone on to tour internationally, and is something that has connected the Theatre to Black communities around the world, from the Black Lives Matter movement in Chicago, to the Afro-Peruvian communities we worked with last year – a relationship we are continuing to nurture as part of our plans for 2021.
And it was both exciting and distressing to see how much the show resonated with Black audiences in every community it visited. Exciting, because we were grateful to be able to share a meaningful connection with those people, and to be using our art as part of the drive towards change. Distressing, because we knew that the reason it meant so much to them was because it reflected their experiences of discrimination too.
I have always felt that the Belgrade takes seriously its commitment to supporting those artists, audiences and communities who are underrepresented, and to reflecting those urgent, important stories that might not otherwise be given a platform. Freeman is just one example of this.
So when we say that we stand with our brothers and sisters, our fellow human beings, around the world; and when we say that we see and hear and feel their grief and their pain and their rage; and when we say that their lives matter to us, we mean it.
As an organisation, we know that we still have a lot of work to do, but we also want you to know that we are fully committed to going on this journey with you. So if you want to ask us questions, or even call us out, we’re listening.