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In Britain, our multi-ethnic society may pay lip service to celebrating difference and we are even giving legal recognition to gay partnerships but there is a continuing pattern of racial confrontation and of gay-bashing. Incitement to racial hatred contravenes British law but that legislation does not extend to stirring up hatred against gays.
The ragga ‘Bashment’ music that has emerged from Jamaican reggae with its strong sexy beat gained enormous popularity with young people, both black and white, and has been singled out as a major source of recent homophobia. Its lyrics have often been violently both anti-gay and anti-women including calls to ‘kill the Battyman’ or, as this play itself quotes, “Boom go a gat [gun] in a batty-boy’s brain/ Gwan, pull a trigga inna Nigga Brudd’s name!” In Spring 2004, Jamaican gay activist Brian Williamson was murdered and late last year  a campaign against ragga was launched by Peter Tatchell’s Outrage, pointing the finger at those artists who espoused homophobic lyrics.
This play is writer-director Rikki Beadle-Blair’s response. He has already made a Sony Award-winning radio documentary, The Roots of Homophobia for Radio 4 that set out to trace the source of homophobia in Jamaica, interviewing in churches and recording studios. He found evidence that its origins were rooted in the laws and religious teaching that stemmed from the British colonial government. In Bashment he tackles the situation on home ground in London.
Twenty-one-year-old JJ is a white boy DJ from Bristol who fell in love with hip-hop and ragga even before he discovered he was gay. He braids his hair, masters pseudo-Jamaican and manages to ignore the lyrics of the music that he loves. Now he loves his clever, artily camp partner Orlando as well, another white. When Orlando goes along to support JJ at a club DJ competition, he attracts the attention of a group of black DJs. They have arrived late and been excluded. Already angry at the white boys on their scene, they discover Olly and JJ are gay and beat up Olly so savagely that, brain damaged, he regresses to childishness. Why do they do it? Because, as one of them puts it later: “He was gay, he was white, he was there.”
But Beadle-Blair (who himself is black and gay) looks deeper and suggests the cause of their hate, at least in part, is a self-hatred that can also be found in gays and indeed in other whites: one of the black gang is a Jewish boy trying to present himself as black, an extreme example of the way in which young whites have adopted black style to gain street cred and the way the music world has appropriated black culture. He touches on black treatment of women as sex objects and in mixed-race Karisma (strikingly played by Jennifer Daley) gives us an articulate woman who can skilfully fight her corner. Arrogantly strutting KKK (Krazy Kop Killa) begins to fall for her and for her arguments but I found it less convincing that a more general reconciliation could be brought about by a white homosexual quoting the words of Bob Marley, however apposite. But this is not, I think, intended to be a realistic resolution. It is all part of Beadle-Blair’s argument and makes it possible for this hard-hitting play to carry a banner of hope rather than dark despair.
The production is given a very stylized treatment. There is no set — black drapes give us a space defined by a wall of light around the acting area. The cloth at the back rises (sometimes only a little and in time to the music) to reveal a white cloth that can be lit in bright colours. Punch bags hang from the flies and the actors pound them as the audience comes into the theatre. Giuseppe di Iorio’s swivelling batteries of lights and rapid changes of lighting state create and define the changes of scene, even the opening of a window curtain. Sound cues give us opening doors. Electric guitarist Joni Levison, playing his own score on stage, underscores the mood for some scenes and scene changes, and the director concentrates the action on essentials. The attack on Olly is delivered almost ritualistically with no actual physical contact, which makes it all the more horrifying when the perpetrators leave him unconscious lying in a spreading pool of blood.
The playing of the straight gang is positive and vivid: Nathan Clough as KKK handling well the discovery of his ‘feminine side’ (a contrived piece of plotting that perhaps we should read metaphorically), Ludvig Bonin as DJ Venom, Jason Steed as MC Eggy, and Joe Marshall’s Jewish White Fang. All are totally convincing in their fast-talking tough characterisations yet show the other side to their personalities without becoming mawkish. They are well differentiated by the performers and the writing makes them increasingly articulate.
The gay characters are perhaps more stereotypical, a straight world’s idea of poofters, which might cause offence if they were not written by a gay man. But that, perhaps, is Beadle-Blair’s point. The butch biker and the apparently masculine straight-acting characters would not make the same point: remember, it was a lot of drag queens who decided they’d had enough at the Stonewall Inn.
Joel Dommett is the picture of devoted loyalty as JJ, Anthony Newell, gentle and outrageous at the same time as Olly, doubly touching as the brain-damaged incontinent he becomes, and Duncan MacInnes as their slightly scatty art-school chum Kevan. Arnie Hewitt plays social worker Sam as a sassy, savvy black queen, tough as they come; if that’s a stereotype, it’s one that sparkles. Luke Toulson has more of a problem as the liberal lawyer Daniel, queer in fantasies but shy of people, yet ready to stand up to bullies. While we accept the other characters at face value (little though we are told about them), this one seems to need explanation.
This is a passionately felt play that is given a stunning production. It is a study of violence that shocks but it is also full of love and laughter. Its upbeat resolution seems something of a cop-out, and it would be if it were intended for a West End audience. But it is probably necessary since I do not think this play has been written to preach to the converted: I think it hopes to reach out to the Stratford audience and have real influence and for that a positive ending is necessary to counter the message of those ragga lyrics, especially for those who dance to the music without thinking about what they are singing.
Howard Loxton © 2005
Originally published on R&V 05-06-05
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