In these first two episodes of Tales from the Front Line…and other stories, Talawa Theatre creates a historical imprint of the efforts of British black women during the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic. We follow two women: a recovery worker in a psychiatric ward and a teacher, in clean verbatim.
Our teacher, performed eloquently by Jo Martin, speaks of how our British stiff upper lip attitude meant that the ‘business-as-usual’ mentality allowed Covid-19 to spread faster. She speaks of the insurmountable task of reassuring students who ask, “Are we going to get it?” The teacher’s speech is intercut with mesmeric dance, pulsating with the anguish of education sector budget cuts; there’s an undeniable heartbreak in how our teacher knows that the children’s silence is fear. It’s impossible not to grow angry, as a viewer, when we hear that management is not ensuring access to hot water across the school and failing to provide hand sanitiser – How can clean hands be a luxury?
In episode two, the voice of our recovery worker (Sapphire Joy) retorts the ‘cute’ NHS claps: “How many of you voted Conservative?” With this one powerful voice shouting, “Shut up!”, we see the hypocrisy of a society who will display public gratitude on a ritualistic scale but then turn their back and refuse a pay rise for NHS workers. One can only imagine the anger embedded here as the verbatim voice tells us of how she moved away from home to prevent the incomprehensible nightmare of bringing the virus back from work.
It is impossibly distressing to consider how minorities are at a higher risk of hospitalisation when “the majority of the NHS is black.” These performances may be strikingly beautiful – but the anger they inspire is deep.
What emerges through these works is a bleak truth of a racist country. Racism in Britain is all too frequently regarded as an undertone, while the blatant systemic machine churns away just below our noses. Our teacher recounts how, in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak, she overheard a colleague say, “I’m not getting Chinese takeaway anymore,” and her 80-year-old mother states, “If I could tear down the statues myself, I would.” 2020 has placed us beyond a society where we can pretend that racism is not a problem in Britain. One of the most dangerous aspects of racism here is how we avoid speaking of it; Talawa Theatre highlights the invisibility of black voices and their efforts to immortalise true stories is vital.
Talawa fights the erasure of black voices in this glimmer of honesty. The plight of black people shouldn’t be admirable when their suffering is preventable on the part of white people who reinforce the system through silence. Like pandemic fatigue, the fight against racism is tiresome and seemingly unending – but Talawa have unveiled a new chapter in historical documentation.
Tales from the Front Line…and other stories is available online. For more information and tickets, see Talawa Theatre’s website.