"Bravery: The act of stealing a black man's fried chicken, and trying to get away with it&q
Camden People’s Theatre
Jamal Harewood straddles the boundaries between theatre and live-art in a work that unapologetically frames each audience member’s choice and subsequent outcome as the subject matter for the piece and confronts this in debate. ‘The Privileged’ is not a solo show but one of shared experience that lingers on the mind and is still lingering.
Left in a cold, artificially lit back room in Camden People’s Theatre, a tentative audience await an official start, but in typical rejection of theatre etiquette this piece has already begun. A single figure lays sleeping, surrounded by a circle of visitors and a scattering of hot, greasy chicken across the floor. Dressed in a comical white bear costume, Jamal Harewood breathes and fidgets which prompts the chattering onlookers to settle down. After a slow start we eventually notice the numbered envelopes and someone has the initiative and the bravery to open one.
A series of numbered instructions and information describing our context within the piece are now narrated by seven anxious audience members. Hairs raised on the back of my neck with one eye on the narrator and one on the bear, I wonder what my role is going to be tonight. The readings place audience members as visitors, taking part in an “encounter” with a polar bear, a special experience for the privileged only. Beginning with playful games such as Grandmother’s footsteps, visitors settle in to the game but always with an edge of fear as the unpredictable bear invades personal space, rummages in belongings and disobeys commands.
After instructed to remove the bear costume, a startling vision of a cowering naked black man with wild inquisitive eyes shocks viewers into immediately questioning or gradually doubting the boundaries of the ‘visitor encounter’. The games quickly move on to feeding time. Nominated visitors take turns to coax, persuade and some might say force the Harewood to eat. At this stage some begin to feel uncomfortable with this idea, wanting to protect the ‘man’ rather than feed the ‘animal’ or play the game with the performer. After a set five minutes it is revealed that he will over eat and vomit and must be stopped. The persuasion and force needed to prevent him from vomiting triggers walkouts, as aggressive behaviour, contact and sudden moves from Harewood make completion of the tasks much harder. The people wanting to protect him however, reject the very task that is now needed to help him. The consequences of our contradicting choices cleverly reflect a hypocrisy – a no win situation for those keen to stay true to a moral outcome.
As the instructions become more provocative, the viewers divide between those committed to the game and those who reject the new rules for their own code, each judging the other, and themselves, for their choices. Harewood’s portrayal; swinging between animal and human, victim and predator further muddies the boundaries.
The piece becomes ever more exposing as the fractured audience debates whether they have been given permission to make choices or are being manipulated into immoral behaviour with control and humiliation a running theme. In forcing an audience to live out their choices rather than observe them at a distance, Harewood provokes unnerving personal responses from them. Defensive, judging and doubting theatre goers question their own role and each other’s within theatre and society which extends into an open and passionate post-show discussion. With Harewood absent, the oscillation between animal and person is never resolved, and a this last task dictates, there is no conclusion.
Harewood’s vulnerability, physical strength and tortured eyes make for a subtle, unwavering portrayal of both man and beast that confuses, compels and astounds. The prominent immersive debate hangs on the power of his performance and the ambiguity that it exudes whilst perfectly demonstrating the descriptions of the polar bear’s behaviour in the text.
Navigating audience debate is heavily dependent on the mood and personality of the people sat opposite you on that particular night which calls for different experiences and interpretations of the work. This is both its weakness and its strength. Society, oppression, racism and choice were the main topics of debate for the audience of the 15th April who, whether they agreed with each other or not, all had that unsettling feeling that they had engaged in something ‘wrong’ and had propelled negative actions both within and without the boundaries set by the theatre piece. ‘The Privileged’ is not for the faint-hearted, often frustrating and sometimes tedious it is hard work both to watch and engage with. I am however still thinking about it, and will be for a while.