Toxic Rehearsal Reflections: First Dibs talent development alumni Susan Kerr
First Dibs talent development alumni Susan Kerr joins the Dibby team weekly and provides insights into the process in this four-part blog series.
I was on Dibby Theatre’s First Dibs writing course in 2021 and it is during this I discovered I was holding myself back in my writing. I’m a black lesbian woman, Dibby Theatre is run by two white cis-gay men, so the discovery, to say the least, was surprising. But working with Dibby in a supported but challenging environment made me aware that under the white gaze I had made myself smaller. During the course, Artistic Director Nathaniel J Hall dared me to write my rage onto the page and onto the stage and not be apologetic about it.
It’s been so interesting to be part of the journey of ‘Toxic’ right from the first research and development sharing in April. Nathaniel is a writer I admire and it’s both him and Dibby that offered me an amazing opportunity to dare to be a writer too.
Through the play Nathaniel takes great risks as a white writer exploring queer love in a mixed relationship. And I say ‘risks’ because even in 2023 it’s a brave thing to do well.
Nathaniel plays himself, the white cis-gay playwright, and Josh-Susan Enright plays his queer, non-binary, dual heritage partner. The play explores what happens when their two lives (and pasts) collide, set on the backdrop of Manchester’s legendary hedonistic queer party scene.
I’ve been dipping in and out of rehearsals since April and in this blog will share some of my observations and critique on the process of how Dibby and Nathaniel have tackled racism and colourism.
In my first encounter with the play (the R+D sessions) I witnessed Nathaniel give Josh-Susan a lot of space to describe their blackness, specifically in relation to their dual-heritage background. Nathaniel is clearly an artist alert to racial prejudice and discrimination, and I could see he wanted to give as much space and time to develop the character. But I left feeling like I wanted to see more exploration of Josh-Susan’s blackness in relation to Nathaniel‘s whiteness.
The second event I attended was a more developed script read through for an invited audience of multicultural queer couples and QTIPOC people facilitated by Dibby Community Engagement Associate Tolu Ajayi.
The invite was welcomed as it gave me hope that Dibby was serious and wanting to really understand. Their previous openness, generosity and insights with me made me optimistic. In this session, it was clear Nathaniel recognised that his perceptions are inevitably limited, but his desire to learn and confront his own bias overruled that.
It made me realise that writing your story and playing yourself (or a version of yourself) can challenge the same longings we all defer to. We want to be seen; we want to be liked. But this kind of theatre demands more than that. It was a lesson for me in unconscious racial bias. It made me pause and wonder, as a black woman raised in a fundamentally racist society, where do my own prejudices lie?
The black audience members pointed out what we considered the ‘obvious’, things that Nathaniel’s whiteness meant he didn’t immediately see. We offered a reading that pointed out some stereotypical assumptions, but to his credit Nathaniel sat and listened. A great discussion about how to balance real, believable characters, whilst trying to challenge racist stereotypes and power structures ensued. I was challenged to consider, how do you make theatre that offers an audience a new perspective, without becoming (as one participant called it) a ‘walking think-piece’?
I was really surprised when I left the session. The invitation to be honest I took at face value, and I had participated giving my honest feedback. What I hadn’t predicted was the shame hangover that would ensue. At the bus stop I realised speaking in a large group had left me feeling exposed and plagued with ‘Did I say too much?”, “Am I too much?”, “Did I just make a fool of myself?”. Old echoes rising to dissuade me from challenging or disagreeing with white folk, powerful ideas of white supremacy. Internalised racism fuelling me into believing my skin colour signifies my “inferiority”, and again the pull to make myself smaller in the presence of whiteness. Clearly there’s always more to learn.
Last week I joined Dibby and the Toxic production team on the first day of rehearsals to listen to the full script read through. Remembering my shame and countless disappointing tokenism’s of the past I was impressively surprised. The new draft was more balanced, Nathaniel had really listened. The new draft offered a deeper dive into how both characters’ respective journeys through the world as white and dual heritage people had shaped them. It highlighted the human complexity and how our behaviour isn’t random, or born entirely from nature or nurture, but is often shaped by societal judgements.
As a black woman I’m tired of being the villain. I’m tired of history, offering white folks so many escape routes that devolve them of any responsibility. Nathaniel has dared to show that he’s not so innocent, whilst ensuring his dual-heritage characters’ flaws and failings feel much more human.
I can’t wait to join the team next week to see how things have progressed.