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Of the many things we’ve missed out on over the past year, with the on-off lockdowns, perhaps one of the least noted is the possibility of a chance encounter. Here/Not Here is all about chance encounters – about the prospect of bumping into different people from different communities, breaking down apparent boundaries, and forging new friendships.
An intoxicating combination of street dance, theatre and rapping, Here/Not Here opens with a group of three youngsters apathetically bouncing around a football. They head to play streetball in a warehouse that has supposedly been designated “their space” and soon realise that they are not the first people to have been told this. A group of deaf people of a similar age are already there, using the abandoned building as a hideout from the wider world, then yet another group come; Krump dancers, whose studio was closed without explanation, have similarly been sent here by the authorities.
Through the magic of subtitles, we, as the audience, understand what each group is trying to say, but the deaf and hearing struggle to communicate. It is gratifying to witness animosity and suspicion give way to acceptance of each other in the space, before finally becoming the warmth of genuine friendship. The three groups solve their communication problems through dance – a seamlessly choreographed display of streetball, sign language and Krump dance all blended into one. Energetic, friendly house beats – composed by Torben Lars Sylvest – come in as they play together, with bounces and stray shouts mixed into the soundscape, as the new group finds its communal rhythm.
Director Bim Ajadi’s presentation of the different groups has wildness to it, like they are pack animals stalking London to find a habitat in the gritty landscape. The city, and the authorities that run it, are cruel and unforgiving, with youngsters forced to stick to their own kind as a means of survival. But beyond the hard exteriors that people maintain in this hyper-stylised world, writer Jonzi D gives heartfelt rap monologues to certain characters to ensure the narrative also maintains a tangible, human heart.
We hear from Naima, a streetball player banned from the sport by her traditionally-minded father, but pursuing it nonetheless despite the judgment she receives on account of her gender and race. One of the Krump dancers also has his say, explaining how dance was an outlet for him after a difficult upbringing surrounded by drugs, knives and “dodgy police”. In addition to this, two of the deaf characters have their own rap monologues, lamenting the failure of society to respect or even notice them: “‘You think I’m a low life, you think you know what I want. You make assumptions about my culture”, one cries. Here/Not here provides space for the self-actualisation of disaffected youth, giving a voice to forgotten people.
Perhaps it was the result of rather fragile nerves two weeks into the third national lockdown, but the ending of Here/Not Here is, rather unexpectedly, a real tear-jerker. Without giving too much away, the plot transitions into a broader commentary on the cruel neglect that so many youth groups are tragically facing, despite their immense potential. And – for want of a better simile – like the musicians of the Titanic, they play out in a blaze of unified glory, even as their situation edges towards devastation.
Here/Not Here played online until 17th January 2021. For more information, see the Southbank Centre website.