Royal Exchange, Manchester. 19th June 2017.
Written and Performed by Pauline Mayers. By the Mayers Ensemble
‘How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?‘ Nina Simone.
Inspired by those words, Pauline Mayers’ What If I Told You challenges us to reflect on our times through her own story. There is to be no standing on the sidelines – as an audience we are invited in to the performance space immediately and encouraged to be ‘present’ using the language and practices of meditation and mindfulness.
Initially we observe Pauline’s own story. A black woman in love with dance, with tin cans on her feet tap dancing at 8 years old. Then circling us and jumping with joy as she remembers her teenage years watching the ‘Kids from Fame’. However she also recalls, even then, attempts to place limits on her aspirations. At this point, we experience her as someone driven, resourceful and adaptive. Told she can’t do something, she is determined to prove that she can.
The space is bare except for a large screen, a table and a small square on the floor, its corners marked out with pieces of tape. A spotlight will sometimes emphasise the delineation of that square space as Mayers will adopt and repeat various positions within it – lying prone and kneeling up. Confined, as if in a cell, she becomes restless and agitated. It is to that small space she will return to relive two important moments in her life. The time when she is told she has a serious leg injury – the devastating news broken to her by a dispassionate consultant in front of a room of observing students. The other memory, more raw, is from her time at the Rambert Dance School. Sharing her desperate frustrations with her teacher over struggling to stay en pointe, the response is chilling. “I’ve never taught a black body before. The teachers don’t know what to do with you”.
Those moments are some of the few times we stand passively watching Mayers’ performance. For the most part we are moving, following her around the room, placed in one to one situations with her, grouped in clusters or helping to conjure up the sights and sounds of a landscape. We are present in the space and part of what is happening.
The show’s most powerful theme arises out of that experience with her dance teacher – of being reduced to the status of a body and of being singled out as different. Being othered. Mayers reflections on this draw her back to a point in history where physician James Marion Sims developed techniques for treating gynaecological problems through ruthlessly experimenting on three black slaves without anaesthetic. He believed black bodies didn’t suffer pain in the way white bodies do. Mayers pulls us back again and again in to the story of Anarcha, Betsy and Lucy. We become witnesses and participants. Around the table she places and poses audience members to become a historic tableau, a living record of another time. At first we are chosen seemingly at random. Then again later, as Mayers moves more urgently and breathless, she selects and pulls us in to take our place on the basis of gender and race.
There are many layers to the piece. Mayers has us all join in a dance move, recreating her memory of a workshop where the repeated seemingly joyful movement is abruptly provided with a bleak and despairing back story.
Occasionally sounds of voices emerge – slightly indistinct and requiring careful listening. Chants of Black Lives Matter, snatches of David Starkey’s attempt to conflate race and criminality and a recording of shameful racial abuse on a Manchester tram from just twelve months ago.
We hear of Mayers’ hair being pulled and touched, her constant endurance of acts of micro-aggression. She describes our bodies full of thousand of cells moving and changing, even when still, all with the potential to be damaged and changed by the stresses and pressures inflicted upon us.
In a poignant section Mayers shares an experience of a trip to visit family in Barbados. Her pleasure in the surroundings tempered by a welcome characterised by coolness, indifference and even a sense of being forgotten.
As the piece draws to a conclusion we are witness once again to a personal dialogue as Mayers places herself repeatedly within various roles shifting across gender and race to be observer, oppresser and oppressed. As if seeking some deeper understanding she even identifies parallels between herself and Sims.
Throughout the show the audience has been given exercises to encourage movement and physical interaction. At its close we are encouraged to use these to enter the space and freely engage with one another. Mayers slips away, leaving the final minutes powered by our own momentum.
After a break there is an involving discussion facilitated sensitively by Khadijah Ibrahim without Mayers being present. We are asked to answer questions about what we have seen, about the difficulties of discussing race and how we might respond to the current challenges facing society. Despite it being framed as an essential second part to the show, Mayers work is powerful enough to speak to us in its own right. Tellingly many people have left to travel home or to reflect on the piece on their own.
With What If I Told You Pauline Mayers carefully and generously shows us the lines she has traced from the personal to the political. It is both her strength of presence as a performer and the gentle way she keeps a hold of the space that enables us collectively in those moments to truly feel part of her lived experience.