Art doesn’t have the privilege of looking on as everyone else struggles: London’s Bush Theatre re-opens with Black Lives, Black Words

by Zahra Dalilah

When Madani Younis stepped into the role of Artistic Director of the Bush Theatre in 2012, he became the first person of colour to run a theatre building in London’s history. Under no illusions as to just how radically things were changing, Younis began laying the foundations for what in 2017 has led to a £4.3 million refurbishment of the building, a record high in the history of the theatre. Less than a decade ago the Bush was playing in a room above a pub to audiences of up to eighty, whilst as of next week their impressive four storey home can welcome over triple that. Speaking to Younis, days before the theatre opens its doors again it became clear that the scale of the project, physically, artistically and politically was not one that Shepherd’s Bush had seen before.

Bush Theatre by Philip Vile

“Cultural institutions have suffered from the Christopher Columbus effect for too many years in this country. That has to change. [We must] avoid [the idea] that we are giving culture to those that surround us as if there is somehow a deficiency [of culture] in the communities that live around us.”

Younis came into the theatre with a bold vision to “respect the past but write a new future; [one where] the inside of our building looks like the outside of our building.” The Uxbridge Road, where Bush Theatre is based, comprises black, brown, migrant and working class communities in a way that most theatre neighbourhoods tend not to. Taking this as his mandate to curate a theatre programme that reflected these communities and the political times we live in, he has continuously showcased the work of new writers, of writers of colour, of voices who are simply too often completely ignored by theatres.

Beyond the content of the programme, during the year that Madani and his team became nomads due to the refurbishment, they performed their plays across community spaces in Shepherd’s Bush from church halls to karaoke bars and West Indian community centres. Zaida and Aadam the tale of two young Muslims in an era of counter-terrorism and state control was performed in Nubian Life Community Centre whilst The Royale, a play inspired by African American boxer Jay Johnson was lived out in The Tabernacle church.

Returning to the bricks and mortar that they call home, Bush Theatre will be re-opening its doors as a fully accessible venue with an extended their 200-seat main theatre and a second studio theatre. For the theatre-makers, the marked difference which has truly made this building home is a significantly increased rehearsal room which finally bids farewell to the days of rehearsing in rented space in Bethnal Green before trekking to the other side of the Central line to perform. From the spectator’s perspective the most shocking aspect of the refurb is that while £4.3 million has been spent, the price of a ticket has gone down from £12 to a tenner for unreserved seating.

“There is no compromise in what we’re doing here. If my theory was [that] I could lead a theatre in a direction that embraced the city or the communities in which it lives, there is no compromise in that approach.”

Madani Younis at the Bush Theatre by Richard Davenport

Younis’ commitment to making accessible theatre that reflects audiences and their communities is undeniably what makes this space unique. At a time where Londoners feel dispossessed, displaced or disregarded, it provides something of a relief to see a physical space led by such a powerful vision for marginalised voices on an accessible platform.  For them, the redevelopment is more than performing plays in “some majestic building.” Increasing capacity and having spaces for hire facilitated a new pricing strategy which means that the Bush are able to offer cheaper tickets to bring in audiences that would have been excluded. The theatre’s potential for longevity seems indisputable; in the director’s words “if the model wasn’t workable we wouldn’t be sat here today”.

As people of colour in the capital the effects of racism play out to varying degrees on our daily lives, whether through the failure of representation and the mis-telling of histories, or in the blatant political failures which question our very right to exist in this country. In the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham the night of the Brexit referendum result saw a Polish community centre which was over half a century old covered in xenophobic graffiti. Remembering the surreality of that time Younis reflects “what’s great about this community, a protest march was held about two weeks later from Shepherd’s Bush green to Ravenscourt Park”.

Far from seeing his work as distant from activism and resistance, Younis rejects the notion that “art has the privilege of just sitting back and just looking on as everyone else struggles”. Instead, he sees art “as a mode for social change” and there is no mistaking that. The re-opening of this space creates an opportunity to nurture theatre which aims to embody the political landscape; already March 25th sees the documentary Generation Revolution welcomed into the building.

“In another 20/30 years when people look back and say ‘God, how did they raise that much money?’ ‘What did they choose to open their theatre with?’ I want people to look back at this moment and acknowledge that we did Black Lives, Black Words because it reflected just where we were at in our thinking, politically and artistically and it’s the perfect marriage of those two things.”

Bush Theatre re-opens with Black Lives, Black Words

On March 18th when the doors re-open Black Lives, Black Words will inaugurate the stage making a clear statement about the future of theatre and the role it can and should play in society. A play created by Reginald Edmond in Chicago as a response to the Black Lives Matter movement it has toured the US and Canada as a series of short plays. Here in the UK, Bush Theatre has commissioned four British writers Rachel DeLahay, Winsome Pinnock, Somalia Seaton and Mojisola Adebayo to contribute alongside two writers from the US.

Centring marginalised voices who are usually absent from both stage and seating, Bush Theatre (re)begins as it means to go on. Younis’ vision of art that invites the community in, rather than excludes, promises to challenge political assumptions and perceptions of theatre alike, with implications for the medium in London and across the UK.

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Take Back The City community activist and co-founder of Our Fathers and Us, a research project on Black British fatherhood, Zahra’s truest loves include hip hop, Lewisham and theories of revolution. Also a trilingual travel addict, you can usually catch her skipping borders across continents whilst trying to understand the true meaning of diaspora. Twitter: @ZahraDalilah1

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