Theatre-maker Rachael Young speaks about her latest production as it debuts at Edinburgh Fringe Festival
“I think the overarching message was not to shrink but to expand. In the production there are words, there is text in the work, there is movement in the text, there is music in the text – but there’s also a lot of space in the text. There’s a lot of space because I wanted to ask how I, as a black woman, can take up as much space as possible.”
For many black Britons, the now-closed Leicester Square Nightclub DSTRKT had been just one physical frontier within a hostile territory of British nightlife, where racialised beauty standards and intensity of melanin are used as barometers measuring suitability for entrance. In 2015, when it was reported that four dark-skinned black women were rejected from the nightclub for being too dark and too fat, theatre-maker and artist Rachael Young felt affected by the events: “Something about it really touched a note with me, because I am a dark-skinned black woman, I’m also not stick-thin either. And there was just something about the policing of their bodies and them being deemed ‘undesirable’ that struck a chord with me.”
Young is the recipient of the newly launched Edinburgh Fringe Award, The Eclipse Award, an award founded by Eclipse Theatre Sheffield and Summerhall Edinburgh Festival Fringe as a response to the underrepresentation of black artists and theatre-makers at the Fringe. This year, Young will be able to bring two shows to the Fringe – Out, a performance which challenges homophobia and transphobia through enmeshing dancehall with vogue culture, and Nightclubbing, a brand new play written in response to the 2015 DSTRKT incident through an Afrofuturist retelling of the stories of the black women involved.
As I chat to Young about Nightclubbing, it is still in its opening few days. Described as “sitting somewhere between live art and theatre”, Young’s plays are frequently inspired by black people’s autobiographical experiences, in relation to the socio-political landscapes which constrain, restrict, and marginalise us. Following the reported incident at DSTRKT, she recalls speaking to black women in her social network about their experience of going out in nightclubs and recalled her own confrontation with racist nightlife in Nottingham. “I grew up in Nottingham, so you definitely feel undesirable,” she says. “In fact, at the time I was creating the show, I remember going out with my sister in Birmingham and waiting in the queue, and bouncers coming up and down the queue and pulling white women out, letting them in before everyone else.”
Young describes how, in a socio-political environment which often leaves young black people without hope, the imagination for our futures which can be activated by movements such as Afrofuturism helps to keep us alive: “We’re literally being gunned down. Things are shifting, and not in a good way. Brexit happened and people got more vocal about the way they felt about minorities in this country. When I started to think about Afrofuturism, I found some hopefulness. I’m not saying these issues are erased – they’re in the fabric of our everyday existence – but there’s an escapism, a way of viewing myself outside of all these things I’ve been told, where I can imagine a world where young black women and girls can find sanctuary.”
As an embrace of Afrofuturism, Nightclubbing is designed to be an audible and visual experience, blending intergalactic and interstellar visions with visceral live music – transcending space and time to reject a society which forces black women to be confined to the smallest of spaces. This Afrofuturist vision, however, is not only about the constraints of race and ethnicity, but intrinsically linked to the binary confines of gender. Young, therefore, describes how Nightclubbing is an ode to black popular culture figures like Grace Jones: “She appealed to me because she’s androgynous, sitting between masculinity and femininity, she’s not afraid to play both of those roles. So when I started to research Grace Jones, I found out that she had this album called Nightclubbing.”
The influences of Grace Jones with her “eclectic”, “new wave Afropunk” sound, paired with figures such as Sun Ra and Janelle Monáe, inform both the sonic power and stage and costume design of the production. Young also documents how the production draws influence from science: “I got really interested in looking at how melanin was made up, and I weave all of these elements, scientific and musical, together. And what you have is a sonic poem. So we look at the rise of Grace Jones, and then these black women wanting to go on a night out, we do this by creating a show which is like a nightclub itself – but what we’ve actually done is created a black planet.” Variant body shapes grace the galactic themed stage decorated with chainmail headdresses and flashes of red and gold makeup – Young describes the women and non-binary people in the show as “a mixture of soft, bionic and strong – showing the strength in muscles, and not shying away from that”. On this black planet, the actors move around a space defined by different textures of black – shiny, rubbled, glittery, whilst the floor looks wet. This fluidity of blackness, according to Young, represents “how we always have to morph and shift and change”.
“When I started to think about Afrofuturism, I found some hopefulness. I’m not saying these issues are erased – they’re in the fabric of our everyday existence – but there’s an escapism” – Rachael Young
Referring to a recent ‘Afrofuturist’ exhibition at The Künstlerhaus Bethanien art centre in Berlin which was criticised for excluding black artists, Young, labelling it “ridiculous”, recognised the risk of movements and cultural aesthetics for and by black people being gentrified: “I’m not sure how anyone could put on an exhibition and call it Afrofuturist when there are no black artists in it, it’s not okay.” But bringing Young’s Nightclubbing ‘black planet’ to a festival such as the Edinburgh Fringe does raise questions about who is consuming this art, as the Fringe has been repeatedly charged with a lack of racial diversity amongst audiences, as well as insufficient financial return from producing at the Fringe which stifles the creativity of black artists.
Young credited The Eclipse Award for enabling to take up space at the Fringe that many artists wouldn’t be able to: “To put things into context, the Fringe is an expensive place to be – to pay for a month of accommodation is nearly £5,000. If you’ve already shelled out £5,000 on accommodation, and then you’ve got venue hire and inclusion into the brochure, you may already be down £10,000, and you’ve not even paid your actors yet or any collaborators – so without the Eclipse money I just would not be able to come.” Black producers and theatre-makers are being done a disservice if, even when they do access the financial means to be platformed at the Fringe, the Fringe does not take enough direct action to draw in black audiences. Groundwork action has launched this year by the group Fringe of Colour, which runs a free ticket scheme to allow black and brown audiences to access black and brown shows. But even still, as Young’s Nightclubbing tackles British nightlife’s racial barriers for entry, The Edinburgh Fringe itself should note how its creative landscape may replicate the problems being challenged.
Nightclubbing ran at The Edinburgh Fringe from July 31 – August 11. It is set to tour again in 2020