Review: Scenes for Survival, Black Scots, National Theatre of Scotland

An extract from Phillipe Ducros, Linda McLean and Davey Anderson’s 2018 production First Snow, Black Scots is a brief but powerful rumination on racism past and present, the role Scotland has played and continues to play in it and the nature of innocence and ignorance.

The piece opens with a masked Thierry Mabonga jogging through the deserted locked-down Glasgow streets, an ordinary activity set against a strange backdrop, albeit one that is quickly becoming normalised in the age of Covid-19. When he stops to rest on a bench, removes his mask and begins to speak of his experiences as a wee Congolese boy fleeing to Scotland with his mother from the conflicts ravaging his homeland, this juxtaposition of the everyday and the shocking is brought further into focus.

Mabonga speaks of his feelings around leaving and the things he wasn’t told at the time: that there would be no going back, about the fear and envy of those remaining behind suppressed beneath farewells and messages of support for a young child stepping into the unknown. He even remembers wondering if he would be the first black man to come to Scotland – if he would be bringing something new, something different, creating something.

These memories of innocence are all the more striking because of the implicit contrast with the lived reality of his current experience and understanding. But this childish naivety also acts as a mirror to our own societal naivety. That such ideas could be possible for a young child to think reveals an already internalised narrative: that Scotland is different, better than the place left behind; that it is quintessentially white, the presence of black people erased.

It is this last point in particular that raises Black Scots’ most unsettling questions, drawing links between Scotland’s rarely acknowledged history of slavery and the present-day investments in the Congolese conflict of the same mundane shops Mabonga runs past on Glassford street. A particularly significant manifestation of this is the funding of different rebel groups by these companies in order to secure access to the precious metals from which they can produce the same phones and computers on which we have all been so reliant during the coronavirus pandemic.

It has taken only a few brief minutes for Black Scots to expose the colonial past and neo-colonial present that lurks amongst the full-length window displays of Scotland’s, and the indeed the West’s, self-image. The sequence ends with a vision of the multicultural normality we are more used to recognising and championing: two young parents, one black, one white, embracing and pushing a pram down the street. The scene appears tranquil, a happy ending. Yet it remains haunted by the uncomfortable awareness that what we are really being offered is a choice about how we view the normality we are so desperate in these most uncommon circumstances to return to, a choice about acknowledging the past and present racism that normality hides in plain sight. To see or not to see, that is the question.

Black Scots is playing online until further notice as part of the National Theatre of Scotland’s Scenes for Survival. For more information, see the National Theatre of Scotland website