In Conversation with Jamal Harewood

by Georgia Grace

A couple of weeks back, performance artist Jamal Harewood arrived at ONCA to set up desk in Kahlo, one of the desk spaces we let out for local professionals and organisations that share our ethos of positive change and creative exploration. There’s something a little different about Jamal though. His invitation to join us here at ONCA was part of him winning the ONCA Green Curtain Award at this year’s Brighton Fringe Festival. Up against fierce competition in the form of nominees Luke Rollason and Goya Arts, we were particularly blown away by Jamal’s audience-led, solo performance ‘The Privileged’.

For those who don’t know, ‘The Privileged’ opens with Jamal feigning sleep, surrounded by up to 40 seated audience members, in a polar bear costume. The audience are provided with a series of numbered envelopes containing instructions, which they may or may not choose to follow. As the hour-long session progresses, the instructions get darker and more invasive regarding the audience’s treatment of ‘the polar bear’ until eventually the audience are encouraged to remove the costume, and reveal Jamal for what he really is: a black man. There’s another finale yet to come however, and the question lingers above every performance as to how far the audience will go. ‘The Privilege’ plays on racial prejudices, stereotypes perpetuated by the media and the privilege that comes with being a participant, or even just a spectator, of systemised oppression.

Fast-forward a month and Jamal is here at ONCA and excited to find out how he can grow and learn from his time here. And we’re equally excited to have him!

After we give him a chance to get settled and meet some of the people who he’ll be working around, I invite him for a cup of tea and a chat about ‘The Privileged’, the Green Curtain Award and what the future holds for him and his time here at ONCA.

The Privileged photo by Yarahmadi

First things first, I wanted to talk about ‘The Privileged’. It’s a powerful and multi-faceted piece and I knew from the outset we would only manage to scrape the surface – this remained the case even when our planned 20 minute session snowballed into an hour and ten.

We discussed the unique nature of Jamal’s performance style: his focus not only on audience participation but on the audience’s behaviour essentially leading the performance. “The reason I wanted it to be audience-led is that in most theatre the audience are on one level and the performers are on another. The audience are passive, they sit in the dark, it’s like ‘don’t cough, don’t speak, don’t do anything, but listen to me, just listen to me speak and take my word as gospel’.” He tells me about his experience of reading Jacques Rancière, a French philosopher who theorises emancipating the audience from their passive shackles. “That kind of stuck with me: why are people allowing me to continue to make work? Why are they just sat doing nothing? Why are they told to just sit there in the corner and shut up, when they could be taking part?”

I probed Jamal about what expectations he had coming into the project regarding what people’s reactions would be, and if there were any reactions that particularly surprised or affected him. “I think I really expected people to just go along with what’s said, to not really have that much of an argument. Maybe it was a bit naïve of me to think that it would go down without a hitch. I wasn’t fully aware of the impact, at that time, that it had on people. Friends would do it and say, “yeah that was really good”; they did think it was good, but it was a traumatic experience to an extent. After doing it once, some people were like, “I don’t think I can go through that again”. It’s weird because I have a completely different view of the performance. I’m not traumatised. I think it’s because I’m the person that’s doing it – having everything done to me – and I’ve been through that process of making it.”

I ask Jamal how he thinks he would respond if it were the other way around, if he were an unsuspecting audience member. “I don’t know,” he sighs. “I don’t think I can ever answer that.”

In response to my query about particular performances that stuck out in his memory, he calls to mind a point towards the end of a performance in which everyone was following the instructions quite blindly. “But then one woman kind of jumped in front of me, arms out, and shouted ‘just stop, guys’. She stopped it all and said ‘it’s a human, and it’s always been a human. We shouldn’t be doing this.’

“And that had never happened before,” he remarks. “And that action still sticks with me.”

One of the components that struck us most at ONCA was the polar bear costume – a striking image with a multitude of connotations, including climate change and animal cruelty. I ask Jamal whether an intentional parallel was being drawn between the racial issues his performance is more directly concerned with and with environmental issues, to which he responds hesitantly. “I’d say no,” he replies, carefully, “because it was more about having white fur and black skin. And then, it’s only as I was performing it and more people were speaking about it, that it was like: oh okay, it has all of these other connotations to it.”

“Was that annoying then?” I enquire. “That people had taken something that you really understood as being about race and interpreted it as something quite different.” “No,” he says, again slowly and carefully, mulling the question over as he speaks. “All the way through my Masters, I was in this weird mindset of, it doesn’t matter what I think, because it’s about the audience, because it’s audience-led. So if they happen to think it’s about animal cruelty and why you shouldn’t go to a zoo then that’s what it’s about.”

We go on to talk more about the motivations behind the particular instructions Jamal gives the audience. Many of these play on racial stereotypes, such as when the audience are instructed to feed Jamal. He provides an anecdote: “When a white, straight, middle-class male goes on stage and they go ‘I am a fireman’ and they have this long story about being a fireman, whatever the ins and outs are, it’s like ‘cool, you’re a fireman, you’ve struggled and that’s a fireman’s struggle’. If I then go onstage and do exactly the same piece, it’s ‘you’re a black fireman’ rather than ‘you’re a fireman’.

“Why can’t I just be what I say I am?” he asks. He goes on to explain that the idea of being hidden – what would eventually evolve into him being inside the polar bear costume – came out of a desire to not be labelled as a black man. “You don’t know [that I’m black] and you can’t make any assumptions on me or what the piece is about.”

“But then I was like, well I am black and I can’t get away from it,” he adds. “I’m tired of running from being black, so if I’m going to be stereotyped without wanting to be stereotyped then I might as well adhere to these stereotypes or incorporate them and do it in such a way in which you can’t put those interpretations on me because I’ve done it.”

“If you can adopt those things that people point at you and label on you then that’s empowering?” I suggest. “Yeah,” he agrees, “and it’s like, what else can you say to me?”

Another point I want to address is a fairly common response audience members have had, which is that their complicity in the action of the play was excusable precisely because they were in a play. “We’d bought tickets, we’d come to see the show: we therefore knew that this wasn’t real,” reviewer Liz Sheppard-Jones comments, citing the views expressed in the discussion after a performance in March. Jamal accepts that such an opinion is valid but argues “there’s a really thin line between what is performance and what’s real.” He also suggests that that kind of mindset often comes from people trying to validate their actions and make themselves feel better. “This is quite a vast jump, but if the Nazis who controlled the gas chambers […] said, ‘we were just doing what we were told or we’d be killed’ then what do you do and how do you deal with that dilemma?”

I consider the comparison for a few moments. “But then that was a real situation,” I argue, and then think again. “Or is this real?”

“Well yeah, it is. It is real because I am going through this. I am on all fours, crawling around and being treated like an animal. Yeah, it’s my choice, but it was also your choice to come here and see it. And as soon as you felt uncomfortable you have the choice to leave.”

The problem with leaving though, as we seem to keep coming back to, is that the performance will still go on without you. Sure, you are removing yourself from it, you’re making yourself comfortable, but you haven’t actually changed anything. Perhaps this is one of the most important things Jamal’s performance has to say about its namesake: white privilege is the privilege to remove oneself from structuralised racism and not have to be affected by it anymore. “You then have to convince 39 other people to leave the room – otherwise what is you leaving doing?” Jamal points out. “It comforts you but you know it’s still going on.” Of course there is no easy solution to the dilemma ‘The Privileged’ presents, and Jamal is quick to make clear “there is no right or wrong of what to do in the performance”.

Jamal has been performing ‘The Privileged’ for three years now. I wonder if there are things he has learned throughout the course of that process regarding the racial issues he is addressing. “People have an issue talking about race,” he says slowly. “When people come up to you [after the performance] and are like ‘I found that really difficult’ […] or ‘I found that so uncomfortable but thank you – it’s in a good way’, I never really knew how to respond to it.

“But then someone recently suggested I should ask why. Because saying you’re uncomfortable, that’s okay to do; you can be uncomfortable. But, if you don’t figure out why then it just could keep happening”. Jamal is yet to try out this piece of advice though. He’s wary about grilling his audience unnecessarily: “they [would] think they’re free and out of the space and then I’m like: Why? Why were you uncomfortable? What about race made you uncomfortable?

“Part two!” he jokes.

I want to change angle a little, and talk more about Jamal’s artistic journey. What had he learned about his style of performance? How had the whole experience inspired him creatively? “It’s been my first public project so it’s just been a massive learning curve,” Jamal explains, indicating the differences between creating art in the bubble of his MA and out in the wider world. “Not only to make a performance but also to back a performance up, all the admin side that you don’t really know until people are asking you for it.”

He tells me it’s been a real challenge adapting to working without the support network of his university. He has come to realise though that being out of university doesn’t mean you have to be completely on your own: “The main thing I’ve learned is that people are willing to help you, and even if they’re not then you know because you’ve asked them. You don’t have to go it alone; there’s always someone out there who will be willing to help.”

We turned the conversation toward the ONCA Green Curtain Award and his time here with us. “In all honesty – it sounds like I’m ungrateful – but I don’t really care about the award; it’s more what’s coming from it. Yes, I got given this plaque and a photo from Brighton Fringe saying what I’d won […] But I’m more interested in the fact that I’m here, I have a Brighton base, I’m meeting all of these people in this room and knowing that ONCA is here now and all of these things. Knowing that all of this is here in Brighton is a much bigger benefit to me than having an award.”

I ask what it is he’s hoping to get out of the experience of being here with ONCA. “Just to learn a lot” he says. “I suppose to improve as well, to improve as an artist.” He stresses how useful having a desk space here is to him, as for the past two and a half years he has been working out of his bedroom. “My house doesn’t have a living room either so my room became my living room, my sleeping quarters, my work quarters, and having another place to go [is useful].” He’s keen also to have some involvement with the Deaf community and BSL (British Sign Language) through ONCA. “I would be interested in having [my recent project] ‘Word’ signed, to have someone on stage as well because then it’s more accessible for people […] Knowing who to approach for something like that and what kind of costs are involved or even pushing me in the right direction for me to start it myself – all of that would just be amazing.”

I’m aware that Jamal already has a lot going on, with both ‘The Privileged’ and his new project ‘Word’ still running, but I’m curious to find out if he has any other ideas bubbling away beneath the surface. He’s keen not to give too much away but he’s got a scattering of half-fledged ideas about new projects. Most importantly, he’s eager to keep the audience central to his performances and to explore new ways of interacting with them outside of giving them envelopes to read as he’s done previously. “There’s got to be more ways of interacting and pushing the performance forward without me speaking,” he says. He’s careful not to make himself the focal point, instead describing his role as the glue: “I like to frame it as, I create a bone structure and then the audience flesh it out. They’re the muscle and the nerves and everything else that makes a human. And obviously one doesn’t work without the other.”

I can’t help but be quite excited speaking with Jamal about his burgeoning ideas; his passion for audience-led performance is innovative and inspirational. I feel, talking with him, as though we’re standing on the edge of something huge: a new way of understanding performance and art and the way we all interact with the issues that concern us within our society. We’re thrilled to have him at ONCA and I’m sure the next few months will be an exciting journey for all of us.