6th November 2023
The inaugural one-day festival, ‘Everyman Connects: Cultural Spaces and the Global Majority’, hosted by Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre, sought to address this imbalance, asking:
The event was inspired by an open letter written to the venue by playwright and 20 Stories High director Keith Saha. This letter formed part of last year’s ‘My White Best Friend – North’ event, which took place simultaneously across Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester. The letter took the institution to task for failing those from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds. Or, as this demographic is increasingly coming to be known, the ‘Global Majority’: the phrase acknowledges that there’s actually nothing ‘minority’ about peoples who make up around 80% of the world’s population.
A change in phrase is all well and good, but any real impact is going to come from a change within society. This was acknowledged by the Everyman’s newly-appointed creative director, Suba Das, who has spearheaded the ‘Everyman Connects’ event which he introduced. Before opening the floor to assorted performances and a heated panel session, he spoke from experience about the representational burden commonly faced by non-Whites in predominantly White industries. Toni Morrison (subject of his undergrad dissertation) has already outlined this in her essay ‘Playing in the Dark’ (1992), he pointed out. ‘Our perspectives are not 360’, he opined, in a poignant soundbite whose themes would echo through the afternoon.
Suba’s intro was followed by a trio of performances; first up were the neo-jazz stylings of Ni Maxine and her guitarist, Jack. The multi-talented Ni – singer, songwriter and occasional scatter – proved perfect in the starting slot. Like a lower-key Celeste, her tracks were soulful and soulfelt, an ideal lazy Sunday brunch soundtrack. Yet beneath the laid-back melodies were lyrics with serious intent: think originals titled ‘Be The Change’, ‘Slave Driver’ and the haunting ‘Please Breeze Carry Me.’ Listen to a sample here.
Next up was Felix, a dynamic figure in Liverpool’s trans community. His spoken-word poem, ‘How Institutionalised Are You?’, sparky with Scouse slang, was received rapturously by the audience. Its direct address continued a theme begun by Ni Maxine, who called on audience members to ‘Check yourself / Check yourself / Know your privilege, know your worth’. Both made it clear that meaningful change can only come with the support of all.
The third and final performance slot was a livestream from actor Maxine Peake, on location at some undisclosed destination (could she be the next James Bond? The idea has us shaken and stirred!). Peake read out the Saha letter which sparked the ‘Everyman Connects’ event, a human stand-in for the depersonalised ‘Ex White Best Friend’ institution (i.e. the Everyman) to which it was originally addressed. Having the White British Maxine Peake vocalise some of the traumatic experiences endured by Saha, who is of Asian descent, was also powerful on the Noughts and Crosses level of racial inversion. However, shameful it may be, the truth is that people become normalised to stories of violence against those from BAME backgrounds. Flipping the dynamics, Malorie Blackman-style, uncovers these often unconscious prejudices. It defamiliarises, deautomatises. Really, though, it’s sad that it should have to. No one, of any shade, should have to experience the ‘prejudice, ignorance and thoughtlessness’ that Saha, like so many others, has been subjected to.
Following a short interval, ‘Everyman Connects’ reconvened for its second half, centred around a panel discussion led by Dominique Walker of the Anthony Walker Foundation. Joining the host were: Kim Johnson MP, Liverpool’s first and only Black Member of Parliament; Chantelle Lunt, writer, activist and founder of Merseyside BLM; Naomi Sumner Chan, an award-winning dramaturg whose interactive 10,000 Heartbeats tour spotlights Liverpool’s historic Chinatown; Paislie Reid, a multi-disciplinary artist with ties to local community projects aimed at Black youth; and Saha himself (he of the open letter fame).
The discussion was wide-ranging, at times uncomfortable, always insightful. Two of the speakers – Walker and Lunt – are currently pursuing postgraduate degrees, aiming to educate first themselves, then others about critical race theory. Activist Lunt highlighted the trope in Black Feminist Theory that progress can only begin when marginalised communities are empowered to tell their own stories. Here, then, are a selection of quotations from the panel discussion, frank and unfiltered.
‘A fish rots from its head.’~ ON HOW CULTURAL RACISM IN CULTURAL INSTITUTIONS MUST BE TARGETED AT THE HIGHEST LEVEL
‘From my point of view, things have regressed.’~ ON HOW SOCIETAL INEQUALITIES NOW MEAN BLACK PEOPLE ARE THREE TIMES AS LIKELY TO BE UNEMPLOYED
‘They’re like: ‘’Where are the BAMEs, where are the BAMEs?’’!’~ ON TOKENISM IN THE THEATRE
‘We can always do more.’~ ON THE ONGOING PROCESS OF DIVERSIFICATION IN THE ARTS
‘We are very valuable; we’ve got massive skill.’~ ON THE OPPORTUNITIES MISSED BY NOT EMPLOYING BAME CREATIVES
‘You can’t separate racism and capitalism.’~ ON THE ROOTS OF SOCIETAL INEQUALITIES
‘Recruitment, recruitment, recruitment!’~ ON IMPROVING REPRESENTATION IN THE ARTS AND THEATRE INDUSTRIES
‘We’re multi-faceted; our visual identity is not all that we are. We have lots of stories to tell.’~ ON THE DANGERS OF TYPECASTING
‘It’s a fundamental human need to be able to belong.’~ ON THE MORE INCLUSIVE CULTURE NEEDED WITHIN ARTS INSTITUTIONS
‘This is the start of a conversation, and it’s a dialogue that needs to continue.’~ ON THE FUTURE FOR EVERYMAN’S MISSION TO DIVERSIFY
Undoubtedly, Dominique is right: this is ‘a dialogue that needs to continue.’ And a ‘dialogue’, by its nature, involves more than one person. In fact, it’s going to take everyone – Black, White, cis, trans, queer, straight – working in tandem to successfully achieve change. ‘Everyman Connects’ highlighted the importance to connect for all.
You can discover more about the ‘Everyman Connects’ initiative at www.everymanplayhouse.com.