Acts of Resistance
Raman Mundair explores Adura Onashile’s Ghosts, an interactive theatre experience which plays out through the streets of Glasgow telling the story of Scotland’s relationship with colonisation and slavery.
For the last few months I have been working as a dramaturg and director on the Tron Theatre’s production of Joe McCann’s play, Things My White Friends Say. When I first met Joe he shared with me a handful of pages with direct quotes from interviews he had undertaken with Scottish people ranging from scientists to football fans on the issue of racism in the light of what we now know through the activism of Black Lives Matter. Part of the dramaturgical process was working with Joe to create a connecting medium between his research and the urgency to link that to Scotland’s role in slavery and her current sense of self. To find a way to reflect contemporary Scottish identity and shed light on the shadow selves she chooses to hide or deflect from. To render visible the blood, sweat and tears saturated in Scottish architecture, in Glasgow’s Merchant City for example, in sharp contrast to the sense of Clydebuilt self that Glasgow prides itself on.
It was during this stage that I thought of the Scottish slave ads that I had discovered a few years ago during an online deep dive into Scotland’s relationship with colonisation and slavery. Advertisements in reputable Glasgow and Edinburgh papers that described human beings as chattel. Young African men and women, barely out of childhood themselves. Girls who would frequently have newborns and toddlers (some of whom were conceived through rape) with them who were an afterthought in the sale, an extra, a freebie, to be disposed of at ‘the purchaser’s option’.
Rhiannon Giddens sings about this with piercing clarity in her song – At The Purchaser’s Option. A song that once heard haunts. The images (based on fact – slave ads) that Gidden’s lyrics evoke follow you, lost, waiting to be witnessed, remembered and processed. Waiting to be made sense of –
“I’ve got a babe but shall I keep him
‘Twill come the day when I’ll be weepin’
But how can I love him any less
This little babe upon my breast
You can take my body
You can take my bones
You can take my blood
But not my soul
You can take my body
You can take my bones
You can take my blood
But not my soul
I’ve got a body dark and strong
I was young but not for long
You took me to bed a little girl
Left me in a woman’s world…”
Adura Onashile’s Ghosts – An interactive augmented reality (AR) experience which uses the camera on your phone and plays out through the streets of Glasgow makes a similarly profound impact. This well researched, innovative piece of theatre also makes use of Scottish slave ads and connects the future and past together so that we may understand our present. So we may choose our/Scotland’s future.
Adura is an award winning Glasgow based writer, actor and director. Onashile, who is both writer and director of Ghosts, has been developing the idea for about seven years and says that she had always envisioned it as an intimate project that would involve walking through Glasgow’s built heritage. Asking audiences to experience the work via a downloadable AR app on their smartphones, feels particularly prescient, with smartphones having become instrumental both as tools of protest and in the galvanising of social justice movements across the world.
The result is an urgent, visceral experience which pushes the boundary of interactive theatre, not least by it’s length – 70 minutes. Time which as Onashile’s text says, ‘collapses’ in on itself as you move through Glasgow city centre as guided by the app and narration, moving between the present and the time travel elicited by Onashile’s intertextual vision.
Words enfolding into layered narratives that concertinas time, memory, fact and a remembering. The intimacy of breath and a soft hum, direct into your ear. The surprising resonance of an unfamiliar voice. A placing of and giving of voice to those who were silenced. Human beings displaced, lost, tortured and used during the genocide of slavery. A genocide that Scotland played an active part in and our dear green place(s) embodies.
Onashile’s characters remind us that Scotland has curated itself and it’s past. It wilfully forgets and renders Black people, both past and present, invisible – “…the city is dead. Made of sand, of stone, of memory. No CCTV down here,No recording of we down here. I laughed when your phones got cameras. What they need cameras for! They won’t record their past.”
Onashile is right, the very technology that she employs to offer a window to the past is not enough to foster accountability. That is a reckoning that demands more, much more. These are days where we use our mobile phones and social media as a kind of proof of life. To show, for example that even during a plague/a national lockdown/global trauma we are alive despite the fact much of our lives have stilled. The augmented reality used in Ghosts operates on a similar level. It fleshes out the bare bones of history that have been excavated and tries to let them speak through soundscape, image, emotional geography and the voices rising through the text like waves, both still and alive.
“I am a boy
I am this City
Running towards his life. I am my master’s house. Built with my blood, my sweat, my dying.
I am Glasgow. Proud. Puffed and Primped. I am your workers, your baillies,
your lord provosts and your tobacco merchants. I am the boy stolen by the hand.”
The AR app offers ‘Ghost’ maps and trails layered over the reality perceived by your camera.
Traces of a bloodied past overlaid with images and sound. Maps of a familiar Merchant City that slowly change. It reminded me of veins suddenly filling red, as if the blood spilled, lost, exploited and sold suddenly finds its way into our present cartography. Refusing to quiet.
“I am a boy… My skin, its concrete
My blood, its waters
My arteries, its streets
My lungs full of its smoke
It’s back alleys, my nerves
My nightmares, its dreams.
Here I am. Kneeling into your ears.”
The horrors of the middle passage are subtly evoked by Onashile in a section where we hear the creaking of a slave ship and imagine the blinding darkness in which a pregnant, African mother cradles her stomach. This unholy moment offers another Madonna and child.
Onashile’s use of repetition and refrain create an urgent poignancy so that when she asks –
“How do you go from Linen to Skin?
Sorted and weighed
Divied and prodded. Divided like bits of meat
Branded like a sell by date”
I found that I too had formed similar thoughts and echoed the same rhetorical question. Ghosts tells us that there is something more to consider about the grand facade of Glasgow than it’s impressive beauty and reminds us that it’s proud architecture is built on the backs of Black people and the labour they gave. The GOMA and St Enoch stops were especially powerful with lines like-
“You made my skin your concrete”/“You turned torture into Merchant City”/“I am here / Rumble at your feet” Coming at pace and juxtaposed with powerful images and names of Black people from the past and present histories- Joseph Knight and Sheku Bayoh. Names/histories we should all know like our own. We should all know, as Onashile reminds us, that “life expectancy on Scottish plantations was four years.” Four years, because human beings enslaved, exploited and worked other human beings to death. And whilst there is much more to Black history than slavery, slavery is a significant part of Scottish (and English, European and American history) that is frequently underplayed and conveniently forgotten.
It is heartening to see the National Theatre of Scotland supporting vital creative work like this (and Hannah Lavery’s moving Lament For Sheku Bayoh) and championing diverse (Scottish) artists and narratives. The Scottish creative team behind Ghosts is impressive and includes a significant number of rising Black and Brown artists including the award winning Alberta Whittle as Research Artist Consultant, Niroshini Thambar as sound designer and composer, and Claricia Parinussa as Associate Producer, all of whom are making significant works individually and like Adura Onashile, bright stars in the firmament that makes up our contemporary Scottish arts, theatre and performance scene.
There were a few technical hitches with the app and at times I felt there were literal ghosts in the machine – as if the app could barely manage to hold the weight of history. But glitches aside this is a worthwhile and necessary experience, one that pushes the parameters of theatre and I hope will become part of the wider education project that Scotland needs to understand herself and to discern how she intends to mark a different path for herself than her English cousins. The AR app frequently asks you to recalibrate the image and I found myself thinking that it would be apt to recalibrate more than what the camera perceives. Art like Ghosts and Things My White Friends Say are part of a new and important canon of Scottish theatre and performance, but we also need something working on a deeper level at the same time. A national recalibration that encourages a truthful, compassionate and intelligent dialogue about who we are, who we were and who we want to be.
Ghosts is available until May 9th / BEHIND THE THEMES | GHOSTS: FRAMING HISTORY IN THE PRESENT Online Thu 6 May, 6.30 pm
Things My White Friends Say written by Joe McCann
With dramaturgy and directed by Raman Mundair
Available to view 01/06/2021 to 12/06/2021
Things My White Friends Say – Post-Show Event
On Saturday 12 June, 6-7pm we will be running an online post-show event hosted by Gillian Neish of Neish Training. This event provides a space and opportunity for people who have been affected by Things My White Friends Say to meet and discuss their thoughts and reflections in a safe facilitated session. Also present at the event will be writer Joe McCann and director Raman Mundair.
You can follow Raman at:
Instagram: @ramanmundair + @rmundair