What if I Told You is a new work by choreographer and theatre maker, Pauline Mayers. Pauline invited us to West Yorkshire Playhouse, to journey with her through her career as a dancer and told us about her experiences as a black woman.
So what exactly did Pauline do in the telling of “What If I Told You”?
Firstly, she made us feel welcome. She took us outside our usual expectations and, in incremental ways, she asked us to be brave and to connect with others in the room. We did things we would not normally do in this context. It felt personal and intensely moving.
Through the journey we were taken on (physically) as audience members, we could put ourselves in Pauline’s shoes. Some of the information shared was quite harrowing. She made important connections between the racism of the past and the racism that is happening now, which gave a sense that our personal histories and collective histories are inextricably linked.
We were asked at the end in what way we consider race? One audience member’s response was an incredible story. He said that he had previously thought that the experience of black people was similar to poor white people. He went on to talk about the recent story of Paul Gascoigne (Gazza) who was fined for racially aggravated abuse when he told his bodyguard who was standing in the shadows in the rain, ‘can you smile please because I can’t see you’. When he had read this, he had thought that the £2000 fine incurred was ridiculous. After all, Gazza was only telling a joke – crass as that joke was. However, now, after experiencing Pauline’s story, he said “they should have given him 6 months”. He said when he saw Pauline sitting there on the floor, he felt that he was Pauline, that he knew exactly how she felt. I know exactly what he means.
That kind of shift in a person’s thinking is profound.
In the after show talk, one person told a deeply insidious story. I haven’t heard this particular one, but I have heard versions of it. It was biblical and talking about why people have different skin colours and describing how the people were white because they were washed clean and how the other people were black because they were ‘lazy’ and got into the water later when the water was muddy. It was deeply disturbing to listen to. A familiar wrongness, I have heard this many times in many ways. I thought about the strength it must take to listen to that kind of rhetoric when it could be about you. Unclean, lazy…the list goes on. I thought about how much these kinds of stories seep into our bones and bias our collective experience. Inequality is embedded in our institutions, our language and social structures. It is everywhere.
After Britain’s recent referendum on the European Union, there was a definite rise in blatant racism and that was scary.
However racism doesn’t only reside within poor and uneducated people. It pervades all our social structures and tarnishes everything. Looking at unconscious bias and white privilege is uncomfortable. What if we discover our own unconscious bias? But if we cannot examine our behaviour and assumptions about race, then how can we change anything for the better?
What If I Told You was a thought-provoking and powerful piece of work. It left me inspired and hopeful. It created a call to be brave, vulnerable, and to carefully consider things from other people’s perspectives.
What If I Told You was written and performed by Pauline Mayers and directed by Chris Goode. A West Yorkshire Playhouse, Little Mighty and Theatre in the Mill Production.