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Deptford: How Quiet Rebels at The Albany highlights structural racism in Britain

The new play’s co-writer and co-director, Julie McNamara, on highlighting stories of abuse

Quiet Rebels is written and directed by Hassan Mahamdallie and Julie McNamara

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BY LAURA ENFIELD

“We really have to push back now because we’re living so close to a dystopian future.”

These are scary words from Julie McNamara, but ones that ring true when you consider the Nationality And Borders Bill passed into law in April.

“It allows the Government to strip individuals of their British citizenship without warning or reason. And no-one seems to be talking about it.

“It’s shocking what’s happening in this country right now,” said Julie, who has co-written and co-directed play Quiet Rebels with the aim of exposing ingrained racism in our society.

“It’s set to run at The Albany in Deptford from November 9-11, 2022.

“I can’t believe while we were picking the navel fluff from our bellies, they put something in law about revoking your UK citizenship for any reason and there is no recourse to appeal,” she said.

“How is this happening in our lifetime – and how are we not revolting?”

Quiet Rebels was inspired by her own family’s traumatic experience with the Home Office, which tried to deport her nephew back to Jamaica after two decades.

“It was the hardest time for us as a family,” said the 62-year-old. “Troy has been with us for 21 years, with my niece all that time, and they have four children. 

“We had to prove they were in an enduring relationship several times over in four different cases and also that it would be unduly harsh for the children to have their father removed to Jamaica.

“The shocking and obscene language I heard at court just absolutely blew my mind. 

“We spent five years and an awful lot of money fighting like hell. We finally won on October 28, 2020, in the Royal Courts Of Justice.”

The stories of real life couples such as Margaret Chapman and Astley Roy helped inspire the story

Their battle was the catalyst for a project with Hassan Mahamdallie, an internationally known senior policy maker and writer of The Crows Plucked Your Sinews, a play about the impact of British imperialism on Somalia.

Julie, founder of disability arts company Vital Xposure, based at Hackney Empire, kept being told she should work with him and went to hear him speak about his report for Arts Council England – The Creative Case For Diversity.

“He quoted this beautiful poem by Langston Hughes – Harlem: A Dream Deferred and I knew then he was the kind of thinker I would love to work with,” said the Hackney resident.

They spent four years developing Quiet Rebels, gathering stories from women who had been spat at, verbally abused and hounded just for marrying men of a different race.

That included Julie’s niece Sophie.

“For me, the impetus has been to try and wake audiences up to what is happening around us, right here, right now, in our own courts,” said Julie.

“I wanted to start hearing from white women who fell in love with brown and black men.

“We went back to the Windrush years and said: ‘Is this where it began?’.

“We know black communities have been established in these islands for a long time, but you go back and think: ‘Alright, where has this nonsense come from?

“When did the racism really set in and why are we going back to a rising right?’.

“It’s embedded in British politics, the monarchy and the class system.”

Joe Conteh and Lottie Bell on stage in Quiet Rebels

Hassan comes from a mixed heritage family and his mother’s story is at the heart of the play.

“She was a working class secretary and met and fell in love with a young guy who came from Trinidad,” said Julie.

“Her mother was appalled and totally against the relationship.

“One day she put her daughter’s husband’s books out in the garden and burned them, which I think is such a fascist statement.”

They also spoke to a woman who was hounded out of Hull after raising her mixed heritage children there.

“She said this is the most racist country she’s ever lived in and she has lived in rural France, Greece and South Africa,” said Julie.

“She talked about the violence that she had received on the streets, the terrible fear she had for her children. In the end, she was so frightened that she left and went to Australia.

“There are common themes that run through all their stories about the racism they experienced, being spat at on the streets, called n-lover, whore, slag.”

The Albany co-produced and staged an early version of the play in development in 2019 and the duo knew they were onto something. 

“That show was only about 35 minutes long but the Q&A went on for over an hour and a half and in the end we got chucked out,” said Julie.

“It revealed a great appetite for this work, for the stories we’ve touched on.

“One of the very common comments was it was refreshing to have white perspectives on the Windrush stories because there’s been so much black trauma staged repeatedly in British theatres and we’ve seen so much spilling out on our screens that it’s actually hugely wounding.

“It’s one of the reasons that we have so many young black people overpopulating prisons and mental health systems – because of the pain and the violence of systemic racism.

“It’s getting worse and permissions, it seems to me, have been given since Brexit, so people are becoming more hostile.”

The play will run at The Albany from November 9-11

Julie said the white women who married men of a different colour were part of the cornerstone of building the multicultural societies we have today. 

“It’s because of who they were and the love that they had for these men,” she said.

“We met some amazing people and some ordinary people and one of the things we discovered about each of them was that they were all quiet rebels.

“Perceived as rebels not by us, but by their parents or local communities or peer group.

“The only crime was they fell in love. Is that a crime?”

Today’s version of the play takes the stories of four women – Margaret Chapman, Mary Khan, Elizabeth Grogan and Yvonne Ali – and sets them inside a racist future where Conservative MP Enoch Powell, who famously believed someone was only British if they were born here, became prime minister. 

Clips of the women speaking open the show and snippets are spoken again by the actors.

The cast is made up of mixed heritage actors Joe Conteh and Deni Francis, Pickles ‘Wayne’ Norman, Lottie Bell, an actor with a hidden disability, and Fiona Whitelaw, who shared her experiences of being a “white pariah”.

Her husband worked as a black detective in the Metropolitan Police and his experiences of racism helped inform the character of the detective.

Fiona leads the audience around the world, narrating what she can see as a form of integrated audio description.

The play also contains pre-recorded sign language and creative captioning is at the heart of its design.

“I didn’t want traditional audio description with people set apart with headsets on,” said Julie.

“That annoys the hell out of me, because I feel like that’s a new kind of apartheid line.”

 The plot follows an investigation into the murder of a white women who married a black man.

As a convicted race-traitor with four children, she has served time for miscegenation.

“It’s set in 2028, but the language you hear has come out of the mouths of politicians from this country in the last few years and from the Royal Courts Of Justice,” said Julie.

“Some people have complained about it, and quite right too, but we stand by it because I think it needs hearing. I feel this is a really important piece of work.”

Julie is appalled some of the “nonsense” they came up with for the play is now coming true.

“When we began writing this, we thought it was so dystopian – but we’re already living it, we have caught up with it,” she said.

“In this country, we didn’t have miscegenation laws, but the president of Hungary was saying recently: ‘We are not a nation if we are mixed’.” 

Julie said events surrounding the Queen’s death also reflected  issues in the play.

“We’ve been shut down and we’re not allowed to peacefully protest – somebody was arrested for saying: ‘Who elected him?’ at a proclamation for the King,” she said.

“Why we’ve got the monarchy now, I do not know. It’s so out of date. 

“You look at it and think: ‘Wow, your own son and his mixed heritage wife have had to leave this country because they feel so uncomfortable about the racism inside the monarchy’. Isn’t that a statement in itself? 

“One minute we were watching this extraordinary wedding that gave a sense of hope and then it all unravelled in front of us.”

Quiet Rebels is also based on stories of love tinged by hate but Julie said the aim was to use them to open up conversations between families, friends, generations and communities about their experiences of racism.

“Some people come to the play hoping it’s going to be a story of romance and love and undoubtedly love is at the heart of the show,” she said.

“But there’s an awful lot we have to fight through and it’s about waking audiences up to the rise of this structural racism in England, which is bleak and needs dismantling.”

Transcripts of the interviews and from the court case will form part of an information pack they are building to go alongside the play.

Julie said she wanted the conversation to continue even after the run ended.

“The play has an open end – you’re left with questions,” she said.

“But it does end with a more positive moment as nobody would want to leave it like this – so what happens next?”

Read more: Discover east London firefighter Stephen Dudeney’s book

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- Laura Enfield is a regular contributor to Wharf Life, writing about a wide range of subjects across Docklands and east London 
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Deptford: How Drag Syndrome are changing perceptions at Liberty Festival

Lewisham-based three-day celebration features performances by disabled and neurodiverse artists

Drag Syndrome are set to perform at The Albany
Drag Syndrome are set to perform at The Albany

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BY LAURA ENFIELD

An hour before we speak, performance group Drag Syndrome is named an Icon In The Making by TikTok.

Founder and creative director Daniel Vais is bubbling over with pride and is very clear that its aim is world domination.

The group, whose members all have Down Syndrome, is booked two years in advance and he said: “Society and culture have to know we’re here to stay. We’re not a fad.

“What these artists are providing is really extraordinary to culture. It’s valuable.

“We have been blowing up for the last four years, but it’s now reaching stardom where we have partnered with brands like Milk Makeup, Instagram, O2 Music – real movers and shakers.

“People with learning disabilities are leading campaigns now. “It’s about damn time.”

It quickly becomes clear he is the drag group’s biggest fan. In fact, he sees its members as examples of how we should all be living.

“People with learning disabilities make the world a better place,” said the 50–year-old. 

“They are magnificent people – much kinder. They go through so much and they have more compassion. I see them as gurus. 

“They are a leading example of the amazing human being and we have to learn from them. It’s very humbling to work with them.”

The group was born in 2018 from his company Culture Device Dance Project, which works with elite artists with Down Syndrome. 

They were invited to perform at LimeWharf in Hackney so he and dancer Sara Gordy went to check it out.

A drag artist was performing and Sara was bowled over and immediately wanted to try it. Drag Syndrome was born in that moment.

The group is made up of six drag queens and one drag king and had its first show at Vogue Fabrics Dalston (now VFD) a small, avant-garde queer space.

Drag Syndrome founder and creative director Daniel Vais
Drag Syndrome founder and creative director Daniel Vais

“It was magical, amazing, powerful, fresh, new,” said Daniel. “They loved it and they wanted another show. It was the best night ever because we understood we had created something amazing. 

“The second show sold out in minutes and then we were on ITV and since then we have been as busy as Rihanna and Beyonce.”

In four years the group has gone from performing to crowds of just 50 in east London, to 15,000 at Montreal Pride, where they were introduced to Canadian president Justin Trudeau.

They’ve appeared at Ru Paul’s DragCon, and featured in a video for Vogue alongside Lady GaGa and Billy Eilish.

During June they completed a European tour and, on July 23, will perform at The Albany in Deptford as part of Liberty Festival.

“Lewisham is the first place I came to when I arrived in London – so, personally, this is a very emotional gig,” said Daniel, who moved to the UK from Isreal.

“It is a top notch festival. The whole programme is super so we’re very grateful to be part of it.”

Every show is different, with lots of improvisation. Daniel said: “I work with the best artists. They blow minds. You see it in people before and after the show.”

They knew from the start the group would be a huge success and have intentionally done it all on their own to stay in control of the narrative.

“Everyone who understands art and culture and sees the show understands they are masters,” said Daniel.

“They are oozing star energy. They know they’re big stars but they are also very professional and some of them are adamant that they would like to achieve things in art and culture. They are ambitious. 

“They have very clear ideas about where to perform, where to appear and how to grow.”

There has been controversy. In 2019, a Republican congressional candidate in America declined to host the performers, questioning whether they could give their “full and informed consent.”

Daniel said they have to deal with constant negative comments, but know what they’re doing is opening gates for others.

“The negativity is a reflection of what people with learning disabilities go through every day,” he said. 

“I talk to the artists about it and they say: ‘This is how we grew up. People say whatever they think to our faces and that we’re not good enough, we are pathetic, stupid’. Unfortunately, they are used to it. 

“But we are coming, taking space and changing that.

“A lot of people with learning disabilities are learning from these artists to have boundaries and to understand it is not right to accept that somebody will think you’re stupid or you can’t do this or decide for yourself.”

Members of Drag Syndrome
Members of Drag Syndrome

Daniel said they answer their critics by being “capable as fuck”. 

He added: “Whatever the misconception is, we don’t fight it. We don’t have to answer to anyone. 

“They’re independent artists. They have international careers and the support around them from parents and siblings is amazing – that’s why it’s working.

“We take our space and don’t ask permission, we just do our thing. That’s what I wanted from this project and the artists did it. 

“They went from stage-to-stage, studio-to-studio and worked their arses off to achieve this success with no charity or support – no nothing. They have success because of their talent.”

Drag Syndrome are set to perform at The Albany on July 23 at 6pm. The performance is free but booking is required. 

Joel Brown and Eve Musto in 111
Joel Brown and Eve Musto in 111

WHAT’S ON AT LIBERTY FESTIVAL – JULY 22-24, 2022

The free event is a celebration of deaf, disabled and neurodiverse artists.

Some events are drop-in and some need booking, but all allow audiences to leave, re-enter and move around.

There will be British Sign Language interpreted shows, audio-described installations and chill-out areas.

The festival is set to kick off with the unveiling of Freedom by artist Yinka Shonibare CBE in Deptford.

Across the three days, visitors will be able to book one-hour sensory walks with Mapping in Lewisham, exploring how the local environment is shaped by sound, smell and terrain.

Captioning Lewisham will be a trail of sound captions along Deptford High Street and 

Mixed Reality Hub (Deptford Lounge, various times) is a collection of digital art and virtual reality work by renowned disabled and neurodivergent artists.

  • Friday will see speakers at the Liberty Symposium (The Albany, 10.15am-6pm) explore topics such as how the media represents people with a disability. In the evening there will be an outdoor performance by Deptford’s Heart N Soul (Griffin Square, 6pm-8pm) and stand-up from Jess Thom Touretteshero (The Albany, 8.15pm)
  • Saturday will include the launch of Manifesto for 2.8million Minds (Lewisham Shopping Centre, 2pm-5pm), a project looking at how we can better support young people’s mental health.
  • Sunday will feature 111 (The Albany, 2.30pm) a physically integrated performance from paraplegic dancer Joel Brown and former principal dancer Eve Musto. Kat Hawkins will perform Object Permanence (The Albany, 4pm) exploring her relationship with assistive devices. 

Leave The Light On For Me (Griffin Square, 3pm and 5pm) will be a joyous outdoor look at climate change and justice and Who Plays Who (The Albany, 6.30pm) is a powerful satire by Stephen Bailey, exploring disabled actors navigating Hollywood casting.

Read more: Sun And Sea takes over The Albany with 10 tonnes of sand

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- Laura Enfield is a regular contributor to Wharf Life, writing about a wide range of subjects across Docklands and east London 
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Deptford: How Sun And Sea is set to transform The Albany into a beach

We sit down with the composer, librettist and director of the sandy opera to find out more

The Albany will be transformed into a beach for the show
The Albany will be transformed into a beach for the show

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BY LAURA ENFIELD

A crowded beach, the burning sun, bright bathing suits and sweaty brows.

Sunbathers begin to sing languid songs of early morning flights, half-eaten sandwiches and plastic bags floating silently below the waterline. 

Sun & Sea is an afternoon at the seaside, witnessed from above.

Audiences watch from the balcony as the mundane evolves into an urgent exploration of our relationship with the planet and the threat of climate change.

The show stunned audiences at the 2019 Venice Biennale and makes its UK debut at The Albany from June 23-July 10, 2022, co-presented with LIFT and Serpentine. 

Ten tons of sand will be used to transform the stage for the “durational performance”, which unfolds on a loop over several hours.

The performers will include local singers and 13 vocalists taking on the role of beach-goers enjoying the sunshine. 

We sat down with composer Lina Lapelytė, librettist Vaiva Grainytė and director Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė to find out more.

why a beach?

Rugilė: The image of a singing beach came while touring with our first opera Have a Good Day!

We were actively waiting for another idea. I was shooting my documentary film essay Acid Forest, which involved a birds-eye view. People were looked at from above as if they were animal species coming to one “cage” in a strange forest. 

This inspired an angle from above on another “zoo”. A beach is the place where the fragility of bodies is exposed. It made us think about the parallel with cosmic bodies, the fragility of the planet Earth. 

The visual, textual and musical layers of Sun & Sea are inseparable and make this work complex. However, in this complexity, we seek simplicity.

Lina: The idea to perform on the beach came gradually. We were looking for a situation that would allow for different individuals to coexist, a place to reflect society. 

The beach is the place where everyone becomes kind of equal under the sun. Swimsuits unify people – they get exposed to the planetary body that heals and is dangerous at the same time. 

At the beach, people mix up – you can meet a university professor, a banker and a hairdresser. It’s a place where their thoughts can meet too. 

We wanted to have a collective voice – a choir, that is driven by different attitudes, different thoughts – however, united by the time and place.

why climate change?

Lina: The work is labelled as climate change opera, but we wouldn’t rule out this being the second episode of Have a Good Day! that we sometimes, ironically, call an ode to capitalism. 

While Sun & Sea puts the joy of consumption on the sandy beach, my personal approach is through body politics: the parallel between the body of a human and the body of Earth.

Rugilė: Passive lying around, the lazy burning away of time and the body – this is the surface of the work. People are only resting, but the axis that holds the whole mosaic of the opera together is a sun which is getting hotter and the exhausted Earth. 

The message about the inevitability of consumption, which we developed in our previous collaborative work, is now delicately incarnated in ecological themes.

Vaiva: The opera consists of smaller sub-topics that can be found as fragments in the libretto of Sun & Sea. These themes are related to the pleasures of consumption, time, climate change, boredom in everyday life, pollution, tourism, the interconnection of hedonism and the apocalypse, skin care, depression, nutrition and technology.

why an opera?

Lina: Opera reflects the Gesamtkunswerk – a total work of art. However, we feel the term can be off-putting sometimes as people expect a traditional treatment of voices and stage. 

We try to challenge the term – to use the potential the genre can offer.

From left, Lina Lapelytė, Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė and Vaiva Grainytė
From left, Lina Lapelytė, Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė and Vaiva Grainytė

how long have you been friends?

Vaiva:  Since teenage times. We all grew up in Kaunas in Lithuania, so share a very similar collective memory of certain topography. 

Lina and I used to hitchhike and hang around in underground concerts, while me and Rugile studied in the same photography school. This is the core of our collaborative practice. 

Rugilė: Another level of friendship started when we realised how closely our ideas resonated while thinking about our first piece. 

Lina: It is also an intellectual friendship – we share some viewpoints and have similar feelings towards many things.

how long did it take to create?

Rugilė: The piece was developed during a residency at Akademie Schloss Solitude in 2016, then presented as a micro-opera at the gallery Palermo in Stuttgart with a premiere in full the following year. 

In 2018 the artists presented the German version in Dresden and the work was selected to represent Lithuania at the Venice Biennale – where the English and durational version was developed.

what impact has Covid had?

Vaiva: As the piece was touring during the pandemic, sanitation breaks, masked audience members, peeping from above, observing unmasked holiday goers, made the beach look like an idyllic postcard from the past. 

The lyrics from the libretto, originally referring to the eruption of Eyjafjallajökulls, which has brought all travelling into paralysis, suddenly sounded like a reflection of the current situation. The connotations of the piece change and closely coexist with current events.

Singers perform lying on their backs
Singers perform lying on their backs

has the show changed for the UK?

Rugilė: Sun & Sea is a mix of fiction and documentary, so the show is always shifting. The musical and textual layers are fixed, the colour palette is fixed but the local beachgoers and choir members bring their natural habits to the beach. 

We ask them to avoid acting, but to do whatever they like and feel comfortable doing on a real beach.

is the local choir new for London? 

Lina: Integrating the local choir has always been important. It does not happen everywhere, but we try. 

Integration of local people started in Venice with not only the choir but also solo singers, some of whom continue to tour.

does lying down affect the singers?

Lina: It is a challenging position to sing in, no-one gets to learn this in music schools, but the people we  work with are embracing these kinds of challenges. 

It’s not just lying down – it’s also occasionally sand landing in your throat while you sing, or a naughty dog taking over your aria, or children freestyling when you need to focus. The piece is life more than a performance.

The durational performance runs on a loop
The durational performance runs on a loop

talk to me about the viewpoint

Rugilė: The audience is looking down to the beach from above, focusing on peculiar species, living on the sand down below. 

Usually, we tend to use this perspective to observe bugs or other smaller animals than us – this creates some sort of hierarchy. 

Balconies frame the beach from all directions and it helps to close the potentially superficial perspective of the sea and the sky. 

Lastly, the angle from above allows the audience to see the singers lying and singing in a frontal position.

what should audiences take away?

Vaiva: The piece has lots of sub-messages and different overtones. It’s both light, bright, joyful, deeply sad, and sorrowful.

It’s up to each audience member to pick up on certain aspects. Therefore Sun & Sea is based on a dissonance – the feeling of catastrophe lurking in the air is wrapped in a contrasting sunny surface. Darker and ironic lyrics are interwoven with pop melodies. Micro stories of the characters told from the “I” perspective allow viewers to connect to the beachgoers emotionally, rather than intellectually. 

Even though the opera-performance is climate crisis-themed, it doesn’t suggest any solutions, but rather allows audience members to enter the realm of pure melancholy, and embrace the feeling of the end.

Read more: Discover Samskara at The Yard theatre in Hackney Wick

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- Laura Enfield is a regular contributor to Wharf Life, writing about a wide range of subjects across Docklands and east London 
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