guest blog: would the incredible jessica james’ family see her shows? / Salome Wagaine

“Like another writerly character making her way through her twenties in New York City, Jessica James hails from Ohio. Unlike the Hannah Horvath of GIRLS, however, none of James’ family makes it to her current home. While Horvath’s parents are, understandably, exasperated and at a loss as to what to do with their only child, both of them, campus university dwellers who likely viewed dabbling in the odd joint at college as part of the experience, visit New York and on some level are able to engage with the artist’s life she has designed for herself out there.

No such meeting of worlds exists within the Jessica James universe. Even if the characters were to be extended past the ninety minute rom-com format, I still don’t think Jessica’s mom, and especially sister would make it out there. There was lots to love about The Incredible Jessica James as a film, not least because it’s the first time I think I’ve seen a black female playwright or theatre-maker depicted in fiction – if I’m being really honest, I just assumed based on the trailer that her creative output would be in writing features or TV or something along those lines, rather – but also that, as well as being a story about a woman and an artist developing, it touches on something all too familiar for those of us working in and fuelled by creative pursuits when the rest of your family does not.

It’s something that many people working within the arts can probably empathise with, but there’s a particular poignancy watching it when it’s a black artist or an artist of colour live with such a gap between her ambitions and her background. Because, what were to happen if Jessica’s family were to come along to one of her rehearsed readings in New York? If the scene out there is anything like the ones I’m familiar with, they would likely be one of the few black audience members in a subsidised, low-fi space, marking them out quite firmly as ‘friends and family’. Everyone else would likely be wearers of the kind of (admittedly, pretty cool) jumpsuit Jessica wore to her sister’s baby shower in one of the more telling sections of the film. And if not wearers of a jumpsuit, then she might see the kind of family that goes and sees plays and things together. The kind of family I may end up having, but not the one I was really raised in.

Not long before I started sixth form, I was on the phone to my uncle (or ‘mum’s cousin’ in certain circles), listing my A Levels: English, Maths, History and Religious Studies. Except I led with Maths first, almost as an act of apology. “Good,” came the reply on the line, “and can you do Medicine with those subjects?”

Working in the arts, especially when you’re not really supposed to, represents a number of leaps of faith. Communicating why, after years of her parents’ sacrifice, hard work and determination, Jessica opts to risk it all on the hope that one day, she might get a full bodied rejection from a literary department or manager she admires, or the offer of a coffee from someone working in the industry, would no doubt have been a tough one.

And, if I’m being honest, we (arts folk, general) don’t always make it easy to show precisely why we’re (artists and producers of colour) putting ourselves through this. I know several people of colour who love theatre but have to deal with microaggressions every time they go to a matinee performance. I see a fair amount of work and often even know my way around these physical buildings, but often have that niggling awareness that I have to be seen as being on my ‘best behaviour’ to receive the level of respect from fellow audience members that I extend to others as a standard (usually much older, white ones – why I suspect weekday matinees are often a poisoned chalice: more availability but risk of getting told off in the lobby much higher). I half expect a telling off in these environments and while it’s a life and way of being I’ve willingly chosen for myself, I can’t say it’s something I’d insist on putting my family through just so that they can play the part of being supportive of my career and lifestyle.

Let’s say Jessica’s family did come to see one of her shows after she got her big break. Her sister might, in an act of politeness, hold open the door for a couple people also close to the entrance only to be stuck there for a few minutes as group after group streams past her to get to the box office. Would this have happened, she might ask, had she looked as big and important as the other theatregoers that evening? I speak for myself here, but there have definitely been enough times that I’ve been to venues and other people in the audience have suggested I don’t really belong there, from the expectation I don’t have tickets to collect in a hurry too, or an eagerness to tell me off with a force for a light brushing of a coat against the back of a seat before the performance begins, that I know the experience could be a lot worse if it were my first time seeing anything there.

We are used to this, of course – it’s a part and parcel of navigating public spaces when your body is politicised as Other – but that doesn’t make us numb to it. Buying groceries in my second year at uni involved a lot more emotional effort than it ought to have done, on account of the supermarket’s security guard following me from aisle to aisle each time I went, for instance. And while I had, on some level, expected it, just as I expected not to be understood as a student going through university buildings and gardens as readily as my white counterparts, as an experience it made me dread going to the shops. But I had to go to the shops – specifically that one because there weren’t many options in the city centre. Hopefully, we go to theatres and exhibition centres and cinemas and the rest because we want to; having to keep an ear out and prepping oneself for assumptions to be made about you won’t help with that.

In the commercial world, the idea of the ‘customer journey’ is well understood. Your product might be great, exactly what someone walking through your doors or stumbling upon your website might be after, but you’ve got to make it easy and pleasant for them to get to the point where they’re paying for it. At each step (the kind of hello you get, whether or not your wait in line gets acknowledged, if you feel there’s a level of expertise and honesty in the advice you’re being given, and so on), there is an opportunity for a potential customer to opt out of a transaction. I’ve definitely done it: been on a website that’s not user friendly and decided to buy elsewhere, and once during a sale on Oxford Street seeing the dismissive way someone working there looked at me (presumably thinking I was a time waster) in favour of someone else near the tills and deciding I didn’t really need the scarf anyway and leaving the shop without anything, even though I’d just moments before been ready to pay. When people don’t come to see our work, visit our venues, maybe it’s not that they aren’t engaged, but we aren’t engaging? Maybe our offer could be stronger, and, to get sales-y, we could spend a little bit more time mapping out the customer journey, from time reading the copy on the website, to collecting tickets at box office on the night of the performance. Maybe we could spend a little bit more time working out what might be making some of our friends and family a little bit twitchy about coming back, or indeed us recommending they come along to the level we might like.

We all meet thresholds in our everyday lives. Barriers visible, invisible, sometimes only perceptible to a certain group that tell us whether or not we enter a space that there will be barriers. School gates, entrances to fancy shops or restaurants, places we’ve never been to before are at once both entrances and checkpoints, and sometimes we don’t feel we make the cut.  I have never been in a betting shop – you can’t see what’s inside because of the frosted glass, kinda freaky! – and I have friends who deem themselves too ‘basic’ to go to artsy spots unless I convince them to (which I sometimes succeed in doing: I’ve converted some friends to ICA by way of £3 cinema tickets and happy hour on cocktails, but I postponed going for the first time myself for fear of not being suitably contemporary, even when there were films I’d wanted to watch on show). Jessica’s irrepressible, sometimes brittle sense of her own dopeness, is no doubt borne from her awareness that she has crossed a threshold and is banging on doors that, for all intents and purposes, are no-gos for some of her family. She’s doing it cause she knows it’s the only way she can thrive. But there can, and should be, a way of making theatres, venues, pop-ups, easier for us to share and enjoy.”

salome wagaine is a project manager for Live Art UK’s Diverse Actions initiative. She’s currently producing Queens of Sheba at Camden People’s Theatre.

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