Hello Darling One,
My name is Selina Thompson, I’m 26, an artist based between Leeds and Birmingham. I make performance about –
I’m finding that sentence increasingly hard to finish.
And I think it is because I am changing quite a bit.
On 12 February, I got on a cargo ship, and sailed from Antwerp in Belgium, to Tema in Ghana. I left there, and flew to Kingston in Jamaica, before sailing back to Antwerp via North Carolina. I returned on 12 April, and my new show about the experience, salt., opens on 12 May.
While I was away, myself and my film-maker had to split up, my grandmother died, my biological sister got in touch. While I was away, my hair was searched in customs, I tore the cartilage in my left knee, I listened to people stand outside my door and comment on the fact that I was ‘already as black as one of the niggers’. While I was away I showered outside while hummingbirds flew above my head, a French bulldog burst into my room and stole my luggage tags, and a load of flying fish jumped too high and landed on the ship I was sailing in.
I hang in a place of real ambivalence – constantly energised and primed, always exhausted. Full of anger and resentment that there is no time for me to recover from the journey before it is time to turn it into art, and delighted, absolutely delighted that this is my work. About to go on stage and reveal, reveal, reveal – yet also fiercely protective and private about everything that happened, and about our process.
It’s a bit of a nightmare for Sharon McHendry, who is handling our PR with her customary brilliance and patience, and I love her for her kindness and persistence.
But I am changing. I could not have experienced all of those things and not be changed by them. I had never travelled before, never been bereaved of someone I really, truly, deeply loved before – had never Skyped my parents before! It is a glorious place to make a show from, but perhaps a difficult one to market a show from. Marketing requires that you make things simple, and transparent – and for me at present, things could not be more opaque.
In my head, we sit around a table – producer Emma Beverley, production manager Louise Gregory, director Dawn Walton, dramaturgs Season Butler and Maddy Costa, film-maker Hayley Jade, voice artists Nyima Touray and Minette Semper, designer Katherina Radeva, sound designer Xa Na, and lighting designer Cassie Mitchell. Plus two assistant designers. And me. We know there is a lot to do in a short space of time. We have three weeks.
So we say: ‘We are not here to make THE SHOW because that could never be made in three weeks. We are here to make a show – to get from A to perhaps G on the A to Z of our journey. Perhaps when we’re in Leeds, we’ll get to J. But we are honest and open about the route we’re going down.’ We work gently. In the first week I tell the journey of the whole voyage twice and record it. We set ourselves deadlines – turn the journey into chunks, into… not even the skeleton of the story, more the bone marrow. But, we say, that is where the stem cells are.
We work with love.
Xa Na comes round to the flat on Sunday, and we try to work through the show. I am exhausted. We talk for an hour, and then she says to me, ‘Would you like a nap?’ So I sleep. I wake, we play with voice artists Nyima and Minette, we get a sense of how our Elder and Child could sound, we finish, and I sleep again. We wake up, eat take-away, and talk through sound palates: thunder drums, Lover’s Rock, the roar of the ocean, rain sticks. Overnight, we both watch Lemonade, and talk about it.
I sit opposite black women in cafes and we talk about secret things, dark things. We talk about our relationship with our mothers, we talk about trauma, we talk about anger and inherited agony and the real, real sting of racism. Not the negotiating of clichéd, racist old white men, but rather the internalisation of all of that, which crushes you from the inside, sees you turn on those most like you. ‘So if I was in the audience, I would be asking why,’ Season asks. ‘Why have you bought me here, to this place of trauma, and haven’t I been through enough already?’ and later, I answer Dawn, ‘Because we are not crazy, I wanted to prove that and we need to keep telling each other that.’ There are tears. There are moments of silence where our eyes glaze over. But it is like that bit in Beloved when Amy Denver massages Sethe’s swollen feet back to feeling. Anything dead coming back alive hurts. The right amount of salt in a wound heals.
The rehearsal room begins to fill – Kat fills it – with blue velvet, with 25kg chunks of Himalayan Rock Salt, with Perspex boxes and salt bricks, with safety netting and false flowers, with safety boots and goggles and gloves with deconstructed Ghanaian flags and with cushions and plastic bottles. I walk down from getting my hair done – long, thick plaits, modelled off a still from Daughters of the Dust, then bus down the hill for the fitting of a heavy white pinafore. We fight with Homebase for the delivery of a much needed deckchair.
In the evenings, I tap tap tap and Louise solders, hunts down the rights to clips from Desmond’s, buys things, sorts our schedules and PRS and holds the whole project together in a way that me and Emma can’t quite believe. Emma sits on the sofa adjacent to mine. We hold hands sometimes, make difficult decisions. I tell her I need time off. She makes a round trip to Bristol every week, negotiates text messages full of panicked emojis every day.
There are pockets of tension around structure: journeys into the underworld, a resistance to linearity – too much language, not enough – trying to fit two months’ worth of experience into less than two hours of show. Balancing the politics and the personal, trying to figure out care for audience when telling a story that is so profoundly unsafe, and so full of pain. I cannot guarantee safe space here, I write. Perhaps you don’t have to, Maddy types back. Perhaps we all take responsibility for it.
So how does all of this end in a rousing call to see my show?
(I’m having a little giggle, at the notion, I’m not going to lie.)
Listen – everything about the show is up in that big bit of description up there. You pretty much know the storyline; the visual materials we’re building it out of – that it was made by a large group of women in a short space of time with a great deal of care. It’s about an epic adventure. You know there’s Desmond’s in it and a couple of the points of reference.
I hope you’ve figured out by now that it’s different to my other stuff – because I am different to who I was.
I still don’t know exactly what it will be like. And I definitely don’t know how you will experience it. I can’t promise that it will be always funny and warm and fun, all those words we use to trick people into seeing theatre. I can’t make those promises, and it scares me somewhat. I cannot promise you that the show will be a safe space, because the things it looks at are not safe – grief, ancestry, colonialism, slavery, and how all of this is taken into the body – these are profoundly perilous and unsafe things.
But, I’m going to be brave.
And I’m going to say that I think it matters.
I think that what we are making together, my team and I, sat around that table eating jacket potatoes and sandwiches from Café Amore, me pretending I’m enjoying the sludgy brown Nutribullet I made that morning, what we are making matters. That it is not, as Sylvia Wynters puts it, ‘Some little piece of ethnic business for you to come and get your doctorate on!’ Rather, that it is something that myself, and a huge team of other people – including the 200 that donated to the Indiegogo crowdfunder earlier this year – are bound up in. That there could be a power and a resonance to it, that carries something of the change that making the work has sparked in my life.
And that that is why you should come to it.
Also, I’m not doing it again in 2016, cos I’m taking a six-month sabbatical in July, so stop asking me to bring it to London and come through, fam. Come through.
Lots of Love to you, love of mine,
For more on Selina Thompson’s work see www.selinathompson.co.uk
salt. premieres at Arnolfini in Bristol (12–19 May 2016) as part of Mayfest. Tickets www.mayfestbristol.co.uk
The show then goes to Stage @ Leeds, University of Leeds, as part of Yorkshire Festival, 29 June 2016. Tickets from www.stage.leeds.ac.uk