Josephine Balfour Oatts Zoom chats with Tamar Saphra and Emily Renée in our latest feature. They talk about the pigeonholing of artists of colour and why it’s not ultimately the worst thing that their show, Alice didn’t get its big transfer.

Behind Tamar Saphra is a portrait of a lady, whose bosom has been artfully covered by a twin set of fried eggs. She gestures to the image, apologising for the busyness of her backdrop. In contrast, my screen shows only a rather rambunctious fern. Emily Renée, however, is set against an even less telling scene. Quickly, she turns the eye of the camera to glance at an impressive bookcase, sprawling with countless titles. Our faces make something of a jigsaw puzzle, with this morning’s conversation accommodated by Zoom – a necessity, considering the all too familiar social and governmental restrictions.

Conversely, the tail-end of February saw both Saphra and Renée underground, as part of theatre company Klein Blue’s production of Alice at the 2020 Vault Festival. Directed by Saphra and written (and consequently performed) by Renée, this solo play is a keen exploration of Azerbaijani-British identity. “I think of Alice as a kind of love story.” Renée says, revealing the project as an attempt at uncovering her own roots; a process shaped by her parents’ shared history. Alice, Renée’s protagonist, grapples with a similar story, in addition to “trying to understand whether or not [her lineage] defines her, fully.”

This is also reflected in the production’s immersive nature. To experience Alice is be wrapped in a unique fabric, a kind of performative cross stitch. Staged in traverse, Alice bounces across time and space, wandering the tightrope of memory. This takes the form of a gangway drawn between audience members, though at times, Alice also chooses to sit among them. “She plays her parents, herself a young girl, and also takes on a narrator character.” Renée adds. In this sense, the character of Alice is the hand that holds the needle, the thread, as well as the pattern both these elements create.

Alice was born as a response to the zeitgeist, which Renée notes, has changed dramatically since the project’s inception last September. Her main concerns centred (and still revolve) around: “a trend of one-man-one-woman shows, especially around the theme of identity.” More pressingly, Renée remarks, is that such shows tend to be the product of artists who identify as non-white. While she recognises this as a positive shift – the sincere efforts of the arts sector to diversify storytellers within the industry – Renée is mindful of a dangerous type of consumerism that can be found in its wake. “There is a kind of…” she pauses. “Commodification, I guess –” here, Saphra interjects: “Or even fetishisation.” Another beat. “Totally,” Renée agrees, “[spectators] wanting to indulge in the exoticism of where someone comes from.”

Further to such an observation, comes a worry surrounding the prospective pigeonholing of artists of colour. Or, as Sara Collins put it so succinctly on a recent episode of BBC Radio 4’s Front Row, “it’s a truth universally acknowledged, that when a black woman sits down to write a historical novel, this historical novel will be about slavery.” For Renée, the freedom of the page is paramount. With Alice, she seeks to explode any preconceived assumptions, any unspoken (but very real) rules pertaining to the subject of her work. In short, her focus became twofold: how does identifying as a writer of colour affect one’s craft and how it is received? And then, is one even allowed to transgress those borders built from the bricks and mortar of public expectation – misconceptions surrounding one’s heritage?

So, ideas were scattered like seeds and soon, they began to grow. Alice became a method of unpicking (and in turn, maximising) the mundanities of what Renée calls “the immigrant experience.” For her, this was key. In pursuing an excavation of identity that gives focus to those that came before her, Renée was able to access “the truth of immigration,” and the realities of inherited trauma. Interestingly, both Saphra and Renée had worked together previously under the umbrella of RoughHewn (Saphra’s script reading service which she manages alongside director Tommo Fowler) but have a doubly strong connection in that they share similar ancestry. “On a personal note,” Saphra says, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear, “my family are Jewish immigrants who came to the UK from South Africa. And though I’m white…” she hesitates. “I have an experience of feeling like I don’t belong; of not feeling very British.”

The play was set to transfer to the Battersea Arts Centre at the end of March for two dates but has sadly been cancelled. “Obviously, we’re incredibly disappointed, but equally it’s an opportunity,” Saphra maintains. The team have now resolved to use this gift of time to their advantage. Next steps include applying for ACE (Arts Council England) funding, along with script-based alterations, then an industry showing and tour. “We are both less interested in doing a three or four-week run at a theatre. We want [Alice] to be a bit of a suitcase show that we can pack up and take to different places.” Saphra explains.

The future then, holds an exciting challenge. “We’re being forced to think about creating work that could be on in one year, two years, three years, four years. Not something that is going to be programmed for the Autumn season,” Saphra continues, shrugging. “Time is elastic, you can play with it.” Klein Blue are eager for the involvement of additional creatives as well. This element of collaboration – which has become increasingly more difficult as a result of the pandemic – hit Saphra particularly hard to begin with, given how much of her work demands the gathering of bodies in one space. “My fear was that without the people, my creativity didn’t exist,” she says, seriously.

Currently, RoughHewn are offering free half-hour clinics, a development which has led to Saphra feeling more like herself again. Renée, too, has started a book club (their most recent read being Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women). Both are positive, touching on the importance of play, and of being kind to oneself. “Right now, our job is to survive,” Saphra concludes. Renée nods in approval, bob bobbing about her jawline. For now, though, it seems the fate of Alice remains a mystery. At this, our talk draws to a close, ending like that of the woman on Saphra’s wall: sunny side up.

Alice was due to play at the Battersea Arts Centre in April, but has now been cancelled due to governmental restrictions.  For more information, please see visit the Klein Blue website.