I'm pretty over being told to put my hands up in the air...
Brandon O'Brien is a writer and poet from Trinidad. This is his other brain.
Caution: May contain intense critical analysis, long rants, and uncomfortable (but necessary) subject matter.
Me, during a meeting.
So I’m a poetry group meeting, trying to discuss next steps for some projects they’re working on (I say ‘they’ because more and more often they remind me of the alienating things they do - plus the fact that the head of the group can’t even say definitively that I’m gonna be a part of those projects anyway), and they’re talking about building themed work for a particular project,
and the very first thing that comes to people’s minds is ‘let’s do a show about men and women in sexual relationships’.
I am not going to lie, I zone out at this point. I’m keeping my thoughts to myself: ‘Trite. Used up. How many more times will people enter other people’s performance spaces and talk only about sex like it’s the only universal experience worth sharing? Why we mus’ be so, eh? Lewwe go an’ do somet’ing unique, telling of our local experiences in a global context or something-‘
At first I don’t really care about how heteronormative it is. I mean, I’ve sized up this team before. Work like ‘He Has A Boyfriend’ don’t fly with these people at the very least because they either don’t want to get typecast or don’t want to lose contracts (and at the very most, I don’t want to get in an ideological verbal fistfight with a team made up of at least one-third self-professed homophobes).
Mind you, at the meeting there’s only one woman (suffice it to say that the group has intense difficulty holding female poets down). So at one point one of the other guys is joking about how it would look if they did a straight show about men’s issues in sexual and romantic relationships - the very first pitch, to give you an idea of just how many guys are in the room - and turns to the girl and says something to the note of,
"Bu’ wait nah… you is de only girl an’ you have to perform too… how yuh t’ink the audience will take dat? Dey might t’ink yuh is a he-she."
Laugh, laugh, laugh, cackle, cackle, cackle.
And I plug all the way out. Nope. I can’t take this shit any more. The boss even notes that I seem detached from the meeting a few moments later - yuh t’ink?
I silently sit through another hour of their heteronormative sex-show fantasizing,
and then for a moment the leader comes back to a pitch I made - about how Caribbean thinking impacted the West.
We only discuss it for twenty minutes, and only so he could find a suitable name for the show if they pitch it. I can tell he barely even likes the idea.
What I need need need right now is a queer Trini poetry team. I just really want a whole LGBT poetry squad coming out of the Caribbean - verbally top-notch, old hands at the stage, critical writers and thinkers about all the ideas of their space, who are not afraid to chew a whole audience a new one when they discuss their own lives and issues. And just damn good - a team so hardcore people call for them by name, and have to choose to put their own biases aside because this queer Trini poetry team is the best thing they’ll ever hear.
I need it now - a whole team dedicated to lyrically queering the stage everywhere they go.
Because I need a treatment for this upset stomach.
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'Body Equals Barrier' lost much of its ambitious lustre swiftly when viewed beneath a critical feminist lens. The play's harbingers of justice and agents of autonomy were all solidly, unquestionably male. There was a way in which the play served up its own hegemony onto the malleable, easily archetyped bodies of the women within it.
All female characters corresponded seamlessly into non-complex, unchallenging roles: the teenaged harlot; the young and corruptible virgin, the pious crone. O’Brien’s scriptwriting suggested scant positive female energy for which one might cast ballots of support, though it hinted at augmented character growth for Angela herself, in the life that endures beyond the play’s conclusion.
"I just here floating around in space!" cried Angela plaintively during [the play’s] climactic (and unnecessarily drawn-out) scene. It’s a sentiment that O’Brien worked earnestly to infuse into the rhetoric of his script: that God leaves us vacant sometimes, though he may send his angels to keep vigil over our catastrophic lives - with indifferent grace.
This is the last portion of Shivanee Ramlochan’s Guardian review of my brother Brendon O’Brien’s play, Body = Barrier. If there were an online version I’d link it - after all, it heaps on the praise on his cast, especially some key characters - but for now, let’s focus on the critique.
Story time: so I saw this on the last night of its showing with one radical feminist playwright/director friend of mine, her girlfriend, and a radical feminist playwright/director friend of theirs coming in from the US. My friend had heard a few throwaway comments about the work, but hadn’t seen it at its first production last year, so since the proof of the pudding is in the eating, she asked me to come see it with her and then hang out with her at a club nearby and chill (the morning afterward she also had a plane to catch, so it was also her going-away party of sorts).
The very moment of closing curtain, she wasn’t there. Nowhere to be seen in the entire theatre. She sent a text that moment saying that she couldn’t take it and had already headed to the club.
So I walk over to meet her there, and she’s, like, bouncing on the balls of her feet with this look on her face like she has something important to tell me, but she doesn’t yet because she’s trying to mingle with some folks, so I’m just chilling with the rest of the gang, talking about what it means to build critical work and what we’re presently tinkering with and blahblah-
My friend comes back with a beer in her hand and points at me, and then proceeds to ask - and I am only barely paraphrasing here: “What the fuck was that play?”
And she is on for hours in a frustrated tone about how there are no conversations about providing agency or autonomy in a play where the male angel tells the two male devils that the reclamation of the protagonist’s grace is her choice to make. We - the whole lot of us - are now taking the piece apart in dialogue, asking questions and positing critical responses about intent as related to message sent (after all, the only thing we can glean anything from is what we’ve seen, so we have to assume that’s what he wanted to say). Then, Brendon shows up to hang with us, and she chews him out right then and there, engaging him live in the critical discussion of female sexual autonomy, strong characterization in orthodox Christian theatre, and the playwright’s commitment to being aware of when their intent and their message are not parallel.
Angela, the play’s protagonist, only a handful of scenes after the angel says ‘it’s her choice’ at least twice, proceeds to be coerced into getting drunk at a party she is hesitant to attend; dances with a male suitor who later rapes her; and then wakes up in her own psyche being convinced by the two devils that this is what she wanted, that his was her rapist’s expression of love, and that if she does not requite him she will always be alone (a presentation made even more harrowing by a figment of her rapist attempting to assault her again while shouting at her that if she doesn’t accept he will no longer love her).
Which… we can tolerate, as harrowing as it is to watch, because, as they say, the devil is a liar.
But that means the truth shall set you free.
Aniel does not tell her the whole truth - that this is not what she deserves, that it is not love, that this is wrong and deserving of punishment on the other end, and that she is in control of her own body. She is simply told that she has suffered, and she can seek the Lord. True, but not nearly redeeming.
Then there are all sorts of other critical points - a pointedly deterministic non-character God therefore insinuates that, in order for Angela to come to the Lord this suffering was bound to happen and was ‘part of the plan’, for instance - but the above is key. It’s not even the tip of the iceberg of its critique. The abuse is never responded to satisfactorily, and the engagement of all the women in the production is trite at best and stiffly clinging to dangerous portrayals at best, whereas even the wickedest man in the play is complexly motivated.
Hell, even Aniel, perhaps the morally whitest-as-snow character in the whole play, has to grapple with an intensely resonant crisis of faith (if an angel doesn’t know if the plan’s going to work, what does that say of the power of evil on earth?) alongside his fear of upsetting the status quo (and therefore seeming to be unfairly stuck within it, regardless of his agreement).
Angela is not only floating in space. She doesn’t even have enough guidance there to pick a direction and paddle to a satellite; she is stranded with a broken compass, needle spinning everywhere, and she doesn’t even know where she wants to go enough to settle on one spot. All she has is her own indecision and a world of stimuli. She isn’t seeking goals and having difficulty attaining them past conflict; she is wishing for goals, given the option of attaining them by doing something she doesn’t want to do, and then convinced to do something contrary to her wishes.
I love my brother, and I think the world of his ability to put words together into powerful sentences. He just needs to direct that power critically, and I feel like he hadn’t in that work. I feel like his work has to overcome a serious logical barrier in order to begin illustrating true and whole body autonomy, and that when people point out that critical fact - especially critics such as myself or Ramlochan who otherwise see the strengths in Brendon’s overall creative ability - it is important to take it into account.
Rap n’ Gradients by Damiano Rosa
Solo show All Night Every Day by Mark Warren Jacques currently at White Walls Project Space through August 9th
London based artist Sophie Smallhorn
It’s the first two lines of Drake’s ‘0 to 100’. I included it regardless of ‘appeal’, I guess. I reference music a great deal in my work, and that means I reference a lot of musical influences independent of genre or source once it’s relevant.
While I do listen to more ‘foreign’ music over local stuff, that has never stopped me from referencing local art or culture when relevant or valuable. Your question, however, does make me ask myself why I don’t put more of my genuine culture in my work.