Photography by Rosie Powell Freelance
There’s a swarm coming…
Many would agree that we live in a racially diverse time with increased ethnic tolerance and cultural acceptance. There are now more mixed-race families in existence than ever before. America has had a black president. And no one dares to compete with the “Queen-B” (Beyoncé). But can symbols of progressive racial equality inherently mean we have achieved real racial sensitivity?
Brother Insect explores what it means to navigate space invisibly, whilst being visibly black. Embodying the character of an extra-terrestrial who is ‘straight up bugging’ on a planet haunted by shadowy ancestors and infested with privileged pests, Brother Insect spins a delicate web that is both stupidly playful and forebodingly dangerous, asking questions like:
Is it possible to encourage liberation without poking the entire hive?
…Don’t get stung!
Brother Insect is presented in collaboration with New Queers on the Block, the Marlborough Theatre’s new touring and artist development initiative. It is also supported by Arts Council England, Camden People's Theatre and New Writing South.
INTERVIEW: BN1 Magazine
“I don’t just want to create something that looks interesting,” Sea Sharp tells me. “I want this to be an emotionally unique experience for everyone who is there.” An award-winning poet and theatre maker, they’re about to let their first full-length performance piece Brother Insect spring to life. Providing a finale to The Marlborough’s landmark New Queers On The Block tour, it offers metamorphosis – both onstage and in how we perceive spoken word work.
The Brighton-based Sharp has been performing poetry long enough to feel accustomed to event structure, how to arrange sets and how any audience will most likely respond. “Performance poetry is a luxury because of the really talented people I get to share the spotlight with. In fact, I depend on them to make me look like I’m a way bigger deal than I actually am!”
Performed by the incredible Michelle Tiwo, Sharp’s Brother Insect has made them adapt to new ways of working. “It makes me dizzy to know I’m in charge of an entire team of professionals! Also, I’d much rather stand naked in traffic than promote my own work – I find that really challenging!” They’ve never worked with a production manager, producer or makeup artist, or had to deal with the complexities of collaborating with a costume designer, ‘an outside eye’ or lighting and sound designers.
These aspects of performance come together for an exploration of what it means to navigate space invisibly, whilst being visibly black. As a person of colour, Sharp has encountered people saying they ‘don’t see colour’, but there is an understanding that it comes from good intentions. “They think that by not highlighting our differences, they are being more inclusive, which is an admirable goal. Unfortunately, this is never the outcome. It is erasure. I experience and navigate this world very differently to my white counterparts. True allies recognise, appreciate and celebrate these differences. They see me. They see us.” Personal experiences like these pervade and define Brother Insect’s potent discussion of invisibility. The work features Sea taking on the character of an extra-terrestrial, unfolding a narrative which is both ‘stupidly playful and forebodingly dangerous’.
Asking if it’s possible to encourage liberation without poking the entire hive, Brother Insect balances the joyous andthe serious, alongside compelling visual elements. Sharp occasionally gets frustrated with the visual limitations of poetry, and theatre allows them to exploit symbolism, stage design, costume design, props and lighting effects to create an engaging experience. Intensely satirical, the show’s disjointed events create an arcing dreamscape sequence. “As a teenager, I spent my summers writing and performing in an experimental theatre troupe in the United States, where I studied surrealism, Dadaism, absurdism and avant-garde theatre, and became inspired by artists like Adrienne Kennedy, Samuel Beckett, Man Ray, Jean Cocteau, and Antonin Artaud.” They’ve not only been obsessing about visual elements; the aim is to activate and engage as many senses as possible. “I want the audience to feel like they are actually in my twisted version of ‘The Upside Down’. I’ve even put consideration into what the theatre smells like.”
Whilst offering a work which deals heavily with identity, Sharp says there’s a need to challenge problematic aspects of ourselves. “We need to find ways that we, as individuals, can empower people who are negatively impacted by our systemic advantages. When the Lewes Flea Market profits by selling golliwogs, they are clinging to and prioritising an identity that incites hatred and divides our community.” Identities which promote white supremacy need to be challenged relentlessly. When these costly and oppressive identities are abandoned, it becomes easier to respect intersectional differences. I approach the question of privilege in art. Could it be a tool for making people appreciate their own status? Sharp suggests it’s oxymoronic to suggest art can wake people up to privilege, when you often need education, resources and money to access or appreciate the work. “I don’t create to make people aware of their privilege. I create for the child I wish I could have been, and for the adult I know I want to be. I need there to be art on this planet that stands in solidarity with people of erased narratives, who are desperate to understand their unique relationships with trauma, and who need to know that they are not alone. So, honestly, when it comes to educating people within art, I don’t feel like I should be making this my responsibility. It’s much more important to me that my art helps to empower other marginalised folks. Because no one else is going to do it! However, if my art can encourage self-awareness, then shit, all the better, right?!”
Original source: https://www.bn1magazine.co.uk/bn1-talks-to-sea-sharp/
INTERVIEW: Means Happy
Poet and theatre maker, Sea Sharp, presents their first full-length performance piece, Brother Insect.
Performed by Michelle Tiwo, Brother Insect explores what it means to navigate space invisibly, whilst being visibly Black, as well as whether symbols of progressive racial equality inherently mean we have achieved real racial sensitivity.
I caught up with Sea Sharp for a behind-the-scenes look at the production.
Where did the character of Brother Insect come from?
I was approached by Apples and Snakes in early 2018 to take part in a Long Form Poetry Workshop. The point of the session wasn’t to create a finely polished poem, rather it was to discuss ideas and processes and then present the work at Brighton Fringe.
There were several things that influenced the trajectory of the work that I developed from this.
At the time, I’d taken an interest in the phenomenal stock character called a ‘magical negro’. I even wrote a poem about former President Barack Obama as a result of this – unfortunately, it’s a pretty terrible poem.
I saw Janelle Monáe, a fellow Kansan native, perform as part of her Dirty Computer tour. I was eager to learn more about the subject of Afrofuturism and also merge it with my craft of poetics.
One day, my husband, who is probably one of the most pretentious people I know, was mocking either nature or landscape poetry. He made some pompous remark about how he could write a poem called Hold My Hand, Brother Insect. He is not a poet, but I am. So, I took it upon myself to write something with that title – something that would impress even him!
What was your inspiration for this piece?
Being treated as too brown or too ethnic looking to be identified as simply ‘American’ within my birth country of the United States. Also, being treated as too ‘American sounding’ to be fully accepted as British in my established home of England.
My experiences of displacement and being unclaimed by both my countries has inspired this piece. It feels like no one wants to really claim me.
This show is intensely satirical, with disjointed events that create an overall dreamscape sequence. As a teenager, I spent my summers learning, writing, and performing in an experimental theatre troupe. I felt most understood when studying and performing theatre of the absurd and avant-garde theatre. It helped me to see the humour and beauty within terror and melancholia.
Is racism a universal experience?
As a person having dual American and British citizenships, I will be the first to say that racism presents itself differently between both places. However, I’m confident to point out that racial equality and racial sensitivity are relevant topics for audiences of both nations.
As I do have a longer lived experience with racism in the US, I can appreciate Brother Insect is American at its core. However, this work would never have been created if it weren’t for my eight years of experiences here in the UK.
The alienation of UK audiences is something that I’ve considered, but if multiculturalism truly is something we pride ourselves on here in the UK, then I don’t think I will lose any audiences with a few American references.
What’s been your creative process in the development of this work?
Although I originally intended it to be either spoken word or page poetry, it didn’t end up that way. Due to it being predominately a monologue, I quickly realised that Brother Insect was a theatrical piece. Later into the process, I realised that it wasn’t appropriate for me to portray this character myself.
I found that it became too emotionally challenging and traumatic to present this work to audiences who are generally less racially sensitive. I’m so thankful for finding a performer who can alleviate this pressure and pain.
Visibility is a key them of this work – what does visibility mean to you?
Brother Insect considers two different types of visibility. There’s the kind that makes you feel present, powerful, and entitled to take up space – to be understood and respected and treasured. This kind of visibility is locked in glass containers and displayed in museums.
But there is also the kind of visibility that makes you feel exposed, vulnerable, and unworthy to take up space – to be misunderstood and disrespected and undervalued, like graffiti in a public toilet.
Visibility is a fascinating topic, really. It’s an inherent contradiction!
What do you hope that people feel when watching Brother Insect?
I’m not naïve to think that the experience will have the same affect on white folks as it will have for BAME people.
If you’re a person of colour, I hope Brother Insect will both entertain and empower you. I hope you will come away feeling inspired to share your own stories.
At risk of echoing the laments of social justice activists, if you’re not a person of colour, then I hope this show inspires you to carefully and sensitively craft your allyship. Anti-racist work is difficult and uncomfortable. I appreciate you for making the effort to open your mind and extend your privileges.
Camden People's Theatre
Tickets - Expired
The Marlborough Theatre
Tickets - Sold Out
If you're a programmer or a member of the press and would like to see the show or find out more about the production please email my producer, Lee Smith via email@example.com.
Photography by Jay Akita-Sharp Freelance
To be published...