Friday, February 9, 2018

Mirror, Mirror

I don't know much about what it is like to be a black woman in eurocentric societies. I know things that I have heard from authoritative sources - that one experiences daily microaggressions or worse, that one's voice is rarely heard politically, that one is restricted to certain forms of visibility (eroticised, rendered primitive, feared), and that if one moves outside of these restraints, there are harsh disciplinary measures waiting. Then there are the first person accounts of racism, for example in the field of journalism, which if you listen to them, oscillate between horrifying and a kind of WTF? WHY??

I've heard these things, and have also actively researched them. And yet I feel I still know, and will only ever know, an extremely small part of what this life is like. That's not to be defeatist, just to say that this is fundamentally not any reality I could possibly inhabit, and so attempts to empathise based on my own experience or knowledge will always fall short.

Nevertheless, attempts are regularly - and not without bravery born of necessity - made to communicate this experience across various subjectivities that comprise a given audience. Soul Sisters' Mirror, Mirror, a work first developed in 2017 and undertaking its second rendition at Ballhaus Naunystraße, attempts to do just this. It's beauty is in its simplicity - 5 black women tell their stories to an audience, with some slight variation and mixing of formats. Stemming from initial writing from Soul Sisters founding member Christine Seraphin, the collaborators have crafted a warm invitation to an audience to empathise, relate, and possible to cross the divisions that a difference in experience brings.

Image Credit: Soul Sisters

The performers/collaborators are themselves the highlight of the show, each bringing something unique to the collaboration. Seraphin, swapping her usual singing voice for the spoken word, brings a kind of intuition to the stage. Rebaone Mangope contributes a kind of careful wisdom, and Veronica Ludwig and Cienna Davis inject an infectious playfulness that permeates the collaboration. Nasheeka Nedsreal restrains her more explosive instincts here, no doubt tempered by a tangible sense of pleasure shared across the cast, settling for a measured and directed sense of purpose.

It's a powerful combination, which from what I understand spans singing, academia, dance, theatre, film and I'm sure others. The diversity of perspectives and professions shows in the variety of the material, which is perhaps best described as a vignette format punctuated by ritualistic and somewhat surreal choreography, exposing a political undercurrent and acting as a more directly political counterpoint to the warmth of the personal narratives. A movement of witches follows a talk-show format that delivers discursive points and builds open the show's opening titles. The strongest links are the stories, in which the collaborators relate experiences in which they understood themselves as inferior within a world that favours whiteness - to be "nobody's ideal of beauty", or to have one's value determined by a proximity to whiteness.  It's all pretty negative but it's relayed with a kind of sadness, an exasperation, even, at the predicament. As Ludwig relates with regard to a slightly lighter-skinned childhood friend: "I know it's wrong, but I stopped seeing her as black".

There's a catharsis among the cast from sharing such vulnerable stories with each other, one that can only exist through an understanding of a common experience, and it's tangibly in the air during Mirror, Mirror. Normally, I'm not a big fan of catharsis, particularly as it exists in Aristotelian tragedy or Hollywood cinema. In this case, it delivers a specific kind of gift to an audience, acting as an invitation to share in a subjectivity without the pretense of full comprehension. This seems to have been a kind of trade-off for the collaborators, whose occasional punctuations of direct political speech or movement ("Don't let anybody steal your voice" or "He wore me like a mask") in the end give way to a generous offer to educate and share, though they are not forgotten. For me, these are sometimes over-extensions (for example, I agree that technology does allow many diverse voices to be heard, but unfortunately it doesn't discriminate, and includes some which would be better off silenced) but these occasions are rare, and mostly whatever criteria I could conjure would be irrelevant here anyhow.

Despite possibly blunting the show's potential as a political weapon, it's a compromise that didn't disappoint me. This is a warm, welcoming, and educational show that theatricalises some of the simple and basic, and yet still not widely understood, tenets of black women's experience. Such a project simply can't be undertaken without anger, and it's well-placed here among the gentle humanity of the cast - and well represented in the show's ending, where the audience are invited into the dressing room post-show. For all the negativity of the world's experiences, Mirror, Mirror is a celebration, and not a complaint.

Besides, we (or perhaps, they) have each other. Is there anything more political, or more resistant?

Mirror, Mirror
Ballhaus Naunystraße

Project direction: Cienna Davis, Christine Seraphin, Nasheeka Nedsreal
Performed by Cienna Davis, Veronica Ludwig, Rebaone Mangope, Nasheeka Nedsreal, Christine Seraphin

In former performances: Melody Makeda
Until Saturday, February 10th

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