Brighton Fringe 2017
Obama and Me
Festival: Brighton Fringe
It’s almost exactly one hundred years since James Joyce wrote ‘Ulysses’, his modernist masterpiece that he set in the Dublin of 1904. In the second chapter of the novel, one of the two central characters, Stephen Dedalus, is talking to an old schoolmaster –
“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”.
‘Ulysses’ is partly concerned with the small Jewish population of turn-of-the-century Dublin, and the schoolmaster, Mr Deasy, observes that –
“Ireland has the honour of being the only country which never persecuted the Jews. Do you know that? No. And do you know why?”
“Why, Sir?” Stephen asked, beginning to smile.
“Because she never let them in”, Mr Deasy said solemnly.
‘History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake’. That phrase was ringing in my head as I left Sylvia Arthur’s polemical production – ‘Obama and Me’.
Joyce was writing about being Jewish and of immigrant stock, in Ireland at the start of the twentieth century; Arthur’s performance is about being black, and of immigrant stock, in Europe in the twenty-first century. Plus ça change.
In both cases, there’s a refusal to see past the outer label, or skin colour, to the essential person underneath. Sylvia Arthur is a British woman of Ghanaian descent – a striking woman in her thirties, and she dominated the Theatre Box stage in a vivid red dress. She’s obviously highly intelligent: after three degrees and an early career in journalism she went to Brussels, to the heart of the European Union, as a communications consultant working on Freedom of Movement. The EU enshrines four basic freedoms – the free movement of goods, capital, services and people. “It’s telling, that only one of those is controversial” …
During a spell in local government in Britain, Arthur had experienced the ‘doubly-reinforced glass ceiling’, that barrier to career advancement that comes from being both black and a woman. But when she got to Brussels, she came up against what she describes as ‘cognitive dissonance’. When she gave presentations at meetings – “my appearance was at odds with the sounds emanating from my mouth”.
It was the casual everyday lack of empathy; from a colleague who – “claimed he couldn’t see me in the dark”, to the PA who was amazed at her competence on the telephone. “Where did you learn to speak such good English?”, to which Arthur responded – “Everyone from England speaks good English”.
(I think Sylvia Arthur was being a bit kind, there – but she’d made her point …)
The main argument of ‘Obama and Me’ is that Europe is in reality a pretty racist continent, made up of pretty racist countries. Arthur describes Brussels, the capital of Belgium, the heart of the European Union. Belgium, with its ethnic split between the Walloons and the Flemish, identified by their different flags. Belgium, with its bloody colonial history in the Belgian Congo. Belgium, currently home to six hundred thousand Africans – Congolese, Ivoireans, Burundians, Rwandese – second-class citizens for the most part; the after-effect of Belgium’s late nineteenth century African Empire.
The Belgians were lording it in Leopoldville while the British Empire was governing the Dublin of Joyce’s novel. The Irish were down on the Jews while themselves being oppressed by the British. The British – who also ruled Shanghai and Hong Kong, Bombay and Calcutta, and large parts of Africa. They were the imperial power in the British Gold Coast – renamed Ghana after independence – Sylvia Arthur’s people’s homeland. At the same time, French colonists held sway in North Africa and Indo-China. A century later, the descendants of these formerly colonised peoples now migrate to the countries of their former rulers, countries they’d been taught to think of as ‘The Motherland’, in search of work, education and a better future for their children. And the ‘host’ countries don’t recognise them – they’ve forgotten their own history.
‘History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake’. After their colonial expansions, the European Empires then indulged in two devastating World Wars, culminating in the deep-freeze of the eastern European countries for half a century behind the ‘Iron Curtain’. As these states joined the European Union they brought with them their own brands of ethnic and racial intolerance. On an EU work visit to Bulgaria, Arthur is abused by a passport officer who assumes she can only possibly be a prostitute or her colleague’s girlfriend. When she protests, her Bulgarian colleague advises her – “You don’t argue with the authorities in these Former Communist countries”.
So there’s prejudice all over – First World to Third World, West to East, lighter skin to darker skin. On a trip to Istanbul, Arthur and a group of black woman friends are continually addressed on the street as black stereotypes – “Hey, Witney Houston!. Hey, Janet Jackson!” Finally someone shouts out – “Hi, Michelle Obama!”. Suddenly, Sylvia Arthur is being classified by a POSITIVE stereotype – the quintessentially twenty-first century positive black woman. A woman identified by her brains and her poise, instead of by her body shape and her skin colour.
Barak Obama too. “Individually the Obamas were remarkable. Together they were a potent force”. Arthur is aghast at the narrow vision of political commentators, by the way they were amazed at how articulate Obama was, how they were – “surprised that a Columbia-educated lawyer and the first black president of The Harvard Law Review didn’t speak like a rapper”.
But still – America put a black man in The White House. For all the racism that still exists in that country, the Civil Rights Movement has produced real change. Arthur doesn’t think that could happen in Europe at present. Obama is too black for Europe. “That, in a nutshell, is Obama and me!”
She sees the solution in education. Education for future generations. Obama’s father, like Arthur’s, migrated to the West, to America and to Canada, to build better lives for their children. To enrich their own futures, but also the future of the countries they end up in. “The past is lost to us, but there’s still time to reverse the future. That’s what the present is for”.
This production felt like Sylvia Arthur really had worked in communications. She interlaced her presentation with arresting images on a screen behind her, and short sequences of video gave us key moments from Barak Obama’s inauguration ceremony, and from an inspiring speech by his wife Michelle. She made imaginative use of flags, too – the Union Jack, the EU flag with its twelve stars, and finally the red, yellow and green flag of Ghana. She had the script in her hand as she was speaking – this is a work in progress and she’s still developing the script while she’s writing a book as another version of the same material. It gave her performance some of the quality of a rehearsed reading, but that didn’t detract at all from the power of her delivery.
I called the show ‘polemical’ at the start of this review; at times it felt like a lecture, more often like a political speech. This isn’t the most ‘theatrical’ performance you’ll see during Brighton Fringe – but coming just days before an election which will determine our future participation in the European project, framed by a UKIP agenda focused on immigration, which produced the can of worms that is Brexit – it’s certainly the most important.