As part of my diversity in development programme, funded by Arts Council England, I had the pleasure of facilitating and observing the development of The South Street Arts Centre, Sightlines Production Being Gordon Greenidge.
Written and directed by Benedict Sandiford and produced by John Luther for South Street, this project was the result of a collaboration between myself and the Film, Theatre and Television Department at The University of Reading, South Street Arts Centre and The Barbados and Friends Association in Reading. The piece explored the life of the West Indies batsman Gordon Greenidge (1951-).
Greenidge emigrated to Reading from Barbados and went on to became a first-class cricketer who played Tests and One Day Internationals for seventeen years for the West Indies. Greenidge is perhaps best known for the two double centuries he scored against England in the 1984 summer Test series. This series became known as the “Blackwash.” The public interest in West Indies cricketing had increased dramatically in the preceding years. This was partly due to the comments made by Tony Greig, the South-African born England captain, in the lead-up to the 1976 series. Interviewed on the BBC, Greig had said:
“You must remember that the West Indies, these guys, if they get on top, they are magnificent cricketers. But if they are down, they grovel, and I intend, with the help of Closey [Brian Close] and a few others, to make the grovel.”
The complex racial politics of cricket and the West Indies’ success in this period inspired director Stevan Riley’s documentary film Fire in Babylon (2010). With interviews from West Indies cricketers including Gordon Greenidge and Viv Richards, the documentary explores the colonial underpinnings of West Indian cricket, with particular attention to Greig’s comments and the performance of colonial and racial issues played out on the pitch.
The intention of Being Gordon Greenidge was to tell Greenidge’s story and highlight the complex racial politics that contextualised it, both in relation to cricket, as Fire in Babylon did, but, also, in relation to immigration to Reading. In order to facilitate this, Benedict Sandiford and John Luther worked closely with The Barbados and Friends association. Together, South Street Arts Centre and The Barbados and Friends association made contact with the Barbadian community of Reading. The intention was to collect testimony on Barbadian life in Reading from the 1950s and 60s, during the period in which Greenidge emigrated, to the contemporary moment which sees Reading as the largest Barbadian community in the UK.
The first phase in the development was to collect testimony from the Barbadian community that would be placed in the performance as a documentary film. Working with George Ormisher at The University of Reading, Benedict Sandiford and John Luther worked over the summer of 2017 to collect testimony and produce a short film that would form the context for the performance and hinge the narrative to a wider examination of Barbadian immigration to Reading.
Over the same period, Sandiford began work on the writing of a script that would form the basis to the performance. The script would have to be, in the first instance, a response to site: the play would be performed in a cricket pavilion at Reading School. The pavilion was made up of two spaces: a locker room and a kitchen room, with an entrance hall separating them.
The script took the form of two monologues that would be delivered synchronously in each space. The intention was to split the audience on arrival between the two spaces, have them spectate one monologue, then move to the other space to spectate the second. The monologues would be delivered by characters Colin and Jordi: Grandfather and Grandson, both cricket fanatics. Colin has emigrated to Reading from Barbados in the same period as Greenidge; he has watched Greenidge’s career trajectory and discusses the importance of it in relation to his own experience as an immigrant to Reading. His Grandson, Jordi, has been the beneficiary of Colin’s interest in cricket. Now teaching cricket himself, Jordi also describes the impact of Greenidge’s career, distilled by his Grandfather, on himself and his experiences. At different points in the monologues, Colin and Jordi “become” Greenidge and tell Greenidge’s autobiographical story from the first person.
At the same time as demarcating Greenidge’s career and describing its impact on the black lived experience of the characters themselves, each monologue also demonstrates the rules of cricket to the audience. For example, Colin demonstrates to the audience how cricket is played on a 1977 table-top cricket game. The game allows Colin to literally demonstrate how cricket works to the audience, but, simultaneously demonstrate the representational issues and racial bias in both real and table-top iterations.
This extract from Colin’s monologue shows how this complex racial commentary was integrated into the performance via the demonstration of the game:
Y’know, summer 2000, West Indies touring England, and man, England won. First time they beat us in 31 years, England captain Nasser Hussein sinks to his knees on the Oval turf, and inside so do I…But that summer I dug this old game out. I played it with my Grandson Jordi, he be 8 at the time or something like that, and before we start playing, he says to me:“Why are all the players white?” And I had this in the loft since the 70’s, there’s no way they going to be black players in this game at that time, and Jordi said: “But I want to play as West Indies” So you know what I did? I sat up that night, and I took some old paints I had, and I painted the fielders…gave them West Indies colours and caps.
Developing the work at Minghella Studios
Chris Tajah and Chris Udoh were cast as Colin and Jordi respectively and the play was programmed for October 12th-14th. Over the preceding weeks, the company developed the work at Minghella Studios. I was able to observe the development activity and facilitate interactions with the piece in development for theatre students. What follows is an examination of the development and key issues raised in the process.
Developing Being Gordon Greenidge
Over the course of the development journey, key issues emerged. The central issue explored in practice seemed to be how to talk about racialized struggle (via Greenidge’s story) with a majority white audience. This issue required reflection in terms of proxemics, characterization, the representation of the issue in the performance itself and its representation in the game of cricket. What follows are the observations from the rehearsal sessions that demonstrate the ways in which these performance issues were addressed.
There were three clear phases in the process of building Being Gordon Greenidge where the subject of race seemed most articulated:
- Demarcating and understanding cricket, particular its colonial history.
- Building the characters and their histories in relation to an understanding of cricket (race, masculinity, colonial context and immigration to Reading etc.).
- Working with students to provide “audience” feedback on the work in process
One: Demarcating and understanding cricket
At the beginning of the process, the focus was largely to demarcate, in collaboration with the actors, an understanding of cricket. This work was practical (both actors would be demonstrating the sport in their performances), but the work was also conceptual: an understanding of the game would enhance the understanding of the racial and colonial contexts in which the game operated and Greenidge’s positioning in all this.
Monday 2nd October
Rehearsals begin with an anecdotal discussion of Gordon Greenidge and his representation in the play. We considered how the audience would respond to knowledge of cricket and the racial bias of the sport achieved in the play by various strategies including representation of the Grovel moment and (Colin’s) painting of the cricket figurines. Benedict discusses taking the figurines to a “Warcraft shop” to have them painted black in order to reference the “blackwash”. The rehearsal moves into a discussion of cricket process. It’s important that both actors really understand the process of the game in order to give the audience a live demonstration of the “rules”. The rehearsal process becomes a “thick description” of the process of cricket with the assumption that the actors are already “off book”. The work here relates to the game in the first instance, the play in the second.
Wednesday 4th October
The rehearsal process continues as a “thick description” of cricket, with the team involved in a detailed discussion of the sport: its history and politics. We discuss the jokes and (sometimes race-related) threats whispered to batsman, undermining the idea that cricket is ‘a gentleman’s sport’.
“You’re out there for hours. Later in the game you get nicer.” “Even the under 11s are mean to each other and try to fuck each other over.” “Cricketers are skilled if they can up their level of concentration when it matters. They only need 23 minutes of concentration otherwise it’s off duty. When they come back on they should concentrate.”
The discussion of cricket becomes a discussion of the theatre of cricket:
“It’s like when actors mess up a scene and they know how they’ve messed up. They say it’s not a bad day; it’s a bad five minutes”.
What’s happening here is that a discussion of theatrical process is also a discussion of cricket and, also, a discussion of Greenidge. The subject becomes increasingly about batting, about deconstructing perfect batting, like Gordon’s. Deconstructing Gordon’s batting is the process of development at this point.
Later, we discuss the psychology of cricket. It is described as “gladiatorial, a battleground”. According to the creative team, cricket is: “lonely and it’s brutal; there are more suicides in cricket than any other sport.” Cricket, the team decides, is observational and exists in the tacit knowledge between players’ bodies. Cricket is a battleground of masculinity and pressure. It’s a question of “how a body responds when it thinks “this is the moment”” – The team ask “why are men so interested in this question?” We discuss this at length in the context of cricket, sport and theatre and in the context of the racial bias experienced by West Indies.
Two: Building characters and their histories
Wednesday 4th October 2017.
The second phase in the rehearsal process was about building characters around the established understanding of cricket. In order to do this, the creative team “met” both characters via improvisational activities. The activity went as follows:
- What do you say about other people (Colin says almost everything about other people)
- What do you say about yourself (Colin says almost nothing about himself)
- What is Colin’s colour?
- What is Colin’s photograph?
- What is Colin’s music?
- What is Colin’s animal?
- What is Colin’s house and possessions?
- How does he move in his space?
This activity was notable in its ability to unearth particular racial issues that determined each character and their interest in Greenidge. For “Colin”, Chris Tajah demonstrated how Colin has been affected by:
- Racism around immigration to Reading, including securing accommodation.
- Racism around the objects he owns: his need to “blackwash” the inaccurately white West Indies players.
- Racism that has affected his movement in the home, town and world that has been problematic yet, at the same time, has to
- Be upheld as a success story and described in positive terms. Greenidge is one of the positive terms that justifies Colin’s understanding of himself.
Three: Working with the students to provide “audience feedback”
Wednesday 4th October 2016
The session begins with the students observing rehearsals. We watch Benedict Sandiford as director making performance decisions around movements in the play with Chris Tajah.
But I was never an academic boy and after a torrid and unpleasant year or so at Alfred Sutton, I left and looked for a job. Suttons Seeds took me on and my new life was heaving heavy bags of fertiliser from one building to another and stacking peat.
Greenidge possibly clears the tea things and biscuits, lifting them into cupborads, the sink etc, sort of inferring they were the sacks at Suttons, replacing the effort of the weight of the sacks with care for the crockery etc.
The students observe the poetic transformation of props (the cups become bags of soil Greenidge was shifting in paid manual labour). They observe how Chris Tajah, in character as Colin, “investigates” objects in the space and how these objects can support the transformation from Colin to Greenidge. Tajah also tries out his discussion of the game of cricket with the students. He encourages them to “play” with him and delivers his speech about painting the players.
The team also explores the psychogeography of the play through its objects and the students’ understanding of them. The bible seems to signify Barbados and the team then “block” the other signifiers of space into the props in Colin’s space. The students see how non-verbal communication is achieved through props and objects and how the handling of objects and their possible communication can solve and create future problems in performance.
Participatory work with the students (Wednesday 4th October, following observational work)
Chris Udoh tries out a game of cricket with the students.
He works on how to deal with problems such as how to deal with left handed audience members; hard ball work; taking cricket pads on and off; audience understanding of the rules of cricket; music cues and their meaning in terms of shifting time; proxemics of audience in the space.
Friday 6th October: scratch work
On Friday, we do a run of the performance with the students. This is the first time we have run the play consecutively and, as a result, see that it needs some cutting. The audience participation around cricket works very well. We look forward to production week.
Production week: commencing October 9th 2017
Thursday 12th October: opening night
We discuss the fact that the show is made up of two constituent performances at the same time: one is for “the public” and the other one is specifically for the Barbadian community involved in the production and performance. The collaboration with the Barbados and Friends association continues throughout the run. Members of the association come to watch themselves in the documentary and volunteer to help present the work. They serve rum cocktail, put up Barbados flags, and play music that contextualises the screening of the short film before the production.
The performances are a success. Audiences respond well to the film and performances and stay to socialise on the veranda after the performance. We are pleased with the way the work has brought together various communities in Reading. I am particularly pleased with the process that has allowed us to trial a facilitated development method at Minghella Studios. This process, maybe because of the way it brought together different groups, was able to tap into the various contexts shaping the subject of the play. The play is about West Indies cricket, Reading and immigration, but the process is also about illuminating the connections of those things to contemporary audiences.