m“I don’t know what to do with a black body.” Shockingly, a teacher addressed these words to a young Pauline Mayers at the Ballet Rambert school. It’s now several decades on, and Pauline knows very well what to do with her black body – namely, to use movement and dance in a physical narration of her personal story and, crucially, to connect this story with what has been done to black bodies in the past. And it is a beautifully defiant protest against the reduction of human beings to their physical form. As she says at the start – “every body has a story behind it”.
Pauline uses movement, dance and theatre to tell two stories: one about her own life and one about the experiences of a 19th century slave woman, Anarcha. At first, these appear to be separate narratives but it becomes clear that Pauline wants us to perceive the fundamental continuity between them. Indeed, it is this continuity that gives the production is purpose and power.
And it is at its most powerful in the dance sequences. While Pauline is undoubtedly an engaging communicator and story-teller, the movement and dance elements take the piece to a different level. Through some inspired choreography, she brings the narrative alive – communicating joy, uncertainty, despair, subjugation and triumph, and much more besides.
But ‘What if I Told You’ is not intended to be a ‘performance’ – rather, it is billed as an immersive experience. There are no chairs in the Royal Exhcange Studio – just a bare wooden floor, a table and a projection screen. From the moment we walk in, it is clear that we will not permitted to ‘observe’ – we are drawn into the centre, and conscripted into the story-telling. For the next hour, Pauline choreographs us with great warmth and skill.
Early on, six members of the ‘audience’ (including myself) are involved in the creation of a tableau. It is done in a light-hearted, good-humoured way and is pleasantly intriguing. As participants are ‘posed’, we are told that this tableau is going to be significant but we don’t know how, or what it represents. Then we move on. A while later, the tableau is recreated. This time, however, there is no light-heartedness. For we have, in the interim, been introduced to Dr J Marion Sims. This 19th century ‘father of modern gynaecology’ built his pioneering career on brutal experiments and operations on un-anaesthetised black slave women. It turns out that our tableau is actually replication of a painting depicting a particular young black woman – Anarcha – kneeling on a table, coldly inspected by Sims and two other white males. And this is the moment where the participatory nature of the production really bites: by being physically involved in the creation of that tableau I feel implicated and sullied by it in a very personal way – much more so than if I had simply ‘observed’ it as an audience member; It is, in fact, a viscerally disturbing experience.
Good theatre does exactly this – it makes us feel, not just perceive. Yet I am aware that my experience is only shared by the five other participations in that tableau; the remaining 25-odd people are merely onlookers. This makes me wonder about the extent to which the production is genuinely immersive. For much of the hour we are passively listening and watching, albeit seated on the floor rather than on rows of chairs. When we are not watching, we are engaging in exercises reminiscent of mindfulness courses or drama workshops. And, while I am genuinely impressed by Pauline’s ability to entice a room full of Brits to hug each other, I am unclear about the contribution of these moments to the narrative. Indeed, in comparison with other immersive productions (e.g. Counting Sheep or Operation Black Antler), our participation feels tangential.
And yet …Pauline seems to insist that, even as onlookers, we connect personally to her stories; she fixes us with her relentless eye contact, she keeps the house lights on, and she allows us nowhere to hide. We cannot retreat into the comfort of being an ‘audience’. And in all this, she seems to be saying that this is OUR story as much as hers or Anarcha’s – or at least, that it is urgent that we properly hear and feel it. Only in this way can we become fully aware of, and take some responsibility for, how ‘blackness’ continues to get in the way of perceiving ‘human-ness’.
‘What if I Told You’ is a compelling – if often uncomfortable – piece of theatre. It has a powerful message and is delivered with grace, passion and honesty. Catch it if you can at the Edinburgh Fringe.