guest blog: some art isn’t made for white audiences and that’s ok / kelechi okafor
When ‘high art’ and ‘good theatre’ doesn’t reflect you, then what does that say about your experiences? Kelechi Okafor discusses why black and brown creatives are forced to make their art cater to white audiences and reflects on her own experiences as a theatre-goer.
“A couple of weeks ago, a Banksy and Jean-Michel Basquiat collaboration appeared on the walls of the Barbican in London.
I watched news reporters ask curious onlookers what they thought the images meant. A few of them knew Banksy’s work but seemed rather clueless about the crown motif synonymous with Basquiat’s work. One woman said “I see the crowns. Hmmm maybe it’s something to do with the monarchy?” I wanted to shout at my TV “add some colour to your culture!” but that would’ve been futile. The impetus to do the work of learning about the marginalised is rarely on those known to be central to a narrative. In another sense I was glad that this woman didn’t know Basquiat’s style immediately. There was something about her lack of knowledge that felt safe to me.
Too often have I witnessed black and brown creatives contorting their spirits and passions in order to make it accessible and inoffensive to white audiences. This needs to stop and I am pleased to see that in various forms, the beginning of the end is well underway. The problem with the arts is that wherever in the world you interact with it, you can’t escape the overarching Eurocentricity of it all. ‘High art’ refers to aspects of European culture – whether it be music, art, theatre or fine dining – and there is a hierarchy for how art is consumed and most importantly who the arts are meant for. The transatlantic slave trade – as well as colonisation by European empires – has meant that in this current age, so many of our tastes are defined by what we have been socialised into believing is ‘tasteful’. Usually the art that falls into this category centres whiteness or explores black and brown lived experiences in a way that coddles and placates white audiences.
There is so much history, trauma, love and the present to work through that there simply is no time to shift narratives in order to make them accessible to the average white audience’s limited understanding of marginalised communities. When we explore European theatre, it is clear how it documents histories and therefore that knowledge informs how we view this type of theatre now. The history of various other countries were interrupted, erased and forever changed by European invasions – the type of art emerging from these communities and cultures is one of reclaiming and retelling histories. The tapestry of our lived experiences have been changed and newly intertwined in ways we may have never imagined so we document these stories in words, pictures and movement. Those who share these histories with us, become our audience and they interact with the art from a place of knowing, learning and maybe from a place of healing.
I watched The Fall at the Royal Court Theatre recently. A stunning piece of theatre devised by a group of drama students at the Baxter Drama Centre at the University of Cape Town. The play documents the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes, a colonialist, from the campus of the University of Cape Town. The actors spoke of the pain and frustration that overwhelmed them as they would walk through the halls of the university met by pictures and monuments that hailed their oppressors. They sought to decolonise a curriculum that was overtly Eurocentric. The ensemble performance of singing, dancing and confident delivery of text, took me to a place of empathy and recognition. I recognised that sinking feeling in the gut as a white student asks you for a shorter version of your name as it would be too cumbersome to honour the history and memory intertwined with your name. These same white students rarely ever find it tedious to pronounce European names like Tchaikovsky. As I watched this play, I fought back tears because although the cast spoke of a specific event at their university, within it was a visceral struggle that I continue to experience as a black person. I looked around the audience only to see that I was one of two visibly black audience members watching this play. I felt angry. I didn’t want to share this pain and this longing for understanding with an audience that couldn’t nod in recognition and disappointment at the micro and macro aggressions that were mentioned. I suddenly felt protective of the cast and their stories. The pain that black people have endured and now choose to document shouldn’t be spectacle for those who will only ever understand it (maybe) in theory.
I used to feel rather uncomfortable with the prefix that befell art by black people; ‘black theatre’ ‘black films’ but my discomfort arose from the knowledge that those prefixes weren’t put there by black people. Those prefixes were a clarion cry for white audiences by white audiences to prepare them for an experience deemed as ‘other’. I would want to scream “it’s just art, like any other art!” only to realise that it isn’t. At the core of what is produced by non-white creatives, is a navigation through life that is very different to the experiences of white audiences and that should be honoured and not ignored.
There have been times when I’ve been in the audience at the theatre and a well-meaning white audience member has asked me whether I’ve come to see the play because I’m related to someone in the cast. The inference here is that the arts, no matter the subject matter, is always for white audiences. That is no longer true. Rarely am I related to anybody in the cast when I go to see a play. I go because the blurb provides something that resonates with me so I book a ticket. These audience members who ask me whether I’m related to a cast member, I wonder if they ask other white audience members the same question? Doubt it. Because that would be ludicrous to assume that they’re only at the theatre because they know someone in the cast and not simply because they enjoy theatre. I remember watching a theatre play and being on the panel afterwards to discuss the themes only for a white man in the audience to put his hand up to say he “didn’t believe the police brutality that was portrayed” because that hasn’t been his experience and “as someone who has black friends” who would refer to him as “the white N word” he felt that he would know of this first hand. My response to him was very succinct: “police brutality is not the tooth fairy or Santa Claus; your belief is not a prerequisite for its existence”. The inherent entitlement that a lot of white audiences feel towards the arts and the expectation that it will centre them, are part of the reasons that reviews of works by black creatives often suffer. Most of the time there are comments like “I didn’t really get it” and I have the urge to comment back “it wasn’t for you to get”.
For years I’ve been subjected to canonic texts that I was told are quintessential examples of great theatre yet I’ve had very little to relate to. A true love of theatre doesn’t require you as the audience member to ‘get’ it if it clearly wasn’t created with you in mind. White audiences should see plays that don’t centre whiteness and they should see it often, but only on the basis that they understand that they are not the gatekeepers of what makes ‘good theatre’ or whether they can verify the lived experiences of another group of human beings.
I like theatre that requires the suspension of disbelief. It’s just rather humorous to me that some white audiences are incapable of suspending the disbelief that there is a world in which everything doesn’t revolve around them.”
kelechi okafor is an actress, personal trainer and founder of Kelechnekoff Studio where she teaches twerk and pole dance. The image used is Banksy and Basquiat’s ‘Ferris Wheel’.