2007 - 2021

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:

Twitter: @MundairRaman

Instagram: @ramanmundair + @rmundair

rmundair.wixsite.com/website

 

 

Comments (14)

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  1. Tom Ultuous says:

    I’ve sent my wife a link to Ghosts Raman. She’s the theatre goer.

    I’m casting my mind back to things some of my white “friends” have said. Most of the offenders seem to have much in common. They support Rangers, vote tory, voted against independence, voted for Brexit, support England and Chelsea in TV games and you can almost 100% accurately guess their opinion on any political subject. They seem blissfully unaware of the fact they’re slaves themselves. Their one saving grace is they haven’t yet become addicted to this new fangled statue guarding game I hear so much about.

    1. Wullie says:

      Glasgow’s adopting this “Merchant City!” tag was a bit daft, most of the buildings post-date the era of slavery. Buchanan, Glasford & Co wouldn’t recognise the place.

    2. Tom Ultuous says:

      To be honest I’ve no idea what either of you are actually saying. What would be the point inviting BNP types to (say) an independence march? If I was talking to refugees who’d just arrived in Glasgow would I be wrong in telling them “beware the union jack wavers”?

      1. Tom Ultuous says:

        Sorry, that post should’ve been in reply to Robbie & Colin.

      2. Colin Robinson says:

        I’ve no idea, Tom. I presume you mean a march for Scottish independence rather than for UK independence.

        And you can give refugees who’ve just arrived in Glasgow any advice you like.

        I’m not sure what you’re getting at.

        1. Tom Ultuous says:

          In your reply to Robbie you seemed to be accusing me of tribalism. Apologies if that wasn’t the case.

          1. Colin Robinson says:

            You’re not mentioned anywhere in that post, Tom. It simply asserts that the ‘wha’s like us’ brand of nationalism to which Robbie alluded is problematic [in relation to the ‘recalibration’ of our republic that Raman calls for].

  2. Robbie says:

    Aye Tom ,they’ve always been a pain in the arse, here’s to those whas like us sort of thing,glad to say they are in the minority

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      Isn’t yon ‘wha’s like us’ sort of thing the problem, Robbie, insofar as it excludes any ‘wha’s no like us’ in appearance, belief, and/or practice?

      How about less tribalism and a more inclusive form of nationalism?

  3. Robbie says:

    But that’s what I,m saying Colin , the “whas like us brigade is tribal and should be left in the past, sorry if I wasn,t clear on that

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      So you were, Robbie. I badly need to pay a visit to Specsavers.

  4. Robbie says:

    We’ve, all done it Colin,cheers

  5. James says:

    As a life long supporter of independence, what terrifies me, was Civic Scotland’s response to the facists in George square, and the police actions( inactions).
    The police stood by and watched our Rangers strip and Union Jack clad facists, attack a peaceful demonstration by immigrants and their supporters. Yet the same police kettled another group of peaceful protesters the very next day, people who have been involved in helping our immigrant community.
    It was worrying enough watching our police support these people, but more worrying that all this went uncommented upon by our Scottish government and our venal 4 th estate. This makes me a little scared of what our independence might actually look like, and I could not in good conscience remain a member of the SNP, as we all know how silence on fascism ends.

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      What else would you expect of an independent Scotland, James, with the Scottish establishment in charge and a nationalised police force?

      In an independent Scotland, it might even have an army too.

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