Is it cos I is black?

The 2000 iconic catchphrase Is it cos I is black? from Ali G. is not a line in Joe Penhall’s play Blue/Orange, revived now at the Young Vic in Southwark, London.  But it could well be (I’ll be coming back to that).  I did not see the original production in 2000 at the National Theatre as I could not afford the theatre ticket AND the train ticket down to London from Cambridge.  This time I FLEW from Cork to London to see it, having received an email from one of my former A Level Drama and Theatre Studies students, Daniel Kaluuya, who has a role in it:

“Hey Miss, Long time no talk, been swamped with work so haven’t been able to reach out.  I’m in another play, called Blue/Orange at the Young Vic. We open tomorrow, just thought I’d let you know and say I’d love you to come.  Hope you’re well!  Speak soon.”

I snapped up a flight, a hotel room and a preview ticket (he likes my feedback before press night) and found myself, last Wednesday evening, being marched by ushers through a simulation of a psychiatric hospital, over-lit and under-furnished, on my way through labyrinthine corridors, to my seat.  Already disorientated, I was shocked to see ‘my boy’ had seemingly grown three inches upwards as well lost his cool: “Yeah yeah yeah yeah, makes me jumpy”.

Daniel Kaluuya in Blue/Orange at the Young Vic 2016. Credit: Alistar Muir

In the play, Penhall discusses ideas of cultural imperialism and ethnocentricity – not only in the area of Shepherd’s Bush, where he lived, but also, specifically, in psychiatric hospitals.  Christopher (Daniel Kaluuya), is the patient who has been sectioned for 28 days for doing ‘something funny’ in the market.  His young psychiatrist, Bruce (Luke Norris) has diagnosed Borderline Personality Disorder but is now concerned that it is more serious: schizophrenia.  The older consultant, Robert (David Haig) is called in to consider a longer stay in hospital.  Much of the play revolves around their power struggle: the compassionate idealist versus the budget-conscious realist.  Robert argues that, “Schizophrenia is the worst pariah … it isn’t newsworthy… it isn’t curable.”  Bruce accuses his superior of racism because of Robert’s references to Christopher’s “people” and “community” and his statement “where he comes from” as if it were somewhere other than Shepherd’s Bush.  Bruce probes: “But … you’re saying … what you’re really saying is Christopher’s … unable to distinguish between realistic and utterly unrealistic notions because … what…? Because he’s black?” Is it cos he is black?

There is a serious issue about BAME patients in mental health care.  Only the other day Jacqui Dyer and Patrick Vernon wrote an article in the Guardian entitled How Can Mental Health Services deliver better care for black patients?  But my concern goes far beyond this in terms of racism.  I see it all around me.  When I got off the plane in Cork, having seen Daniel in the play, I spotted that the drivers of the two cabs at the front of the queue at the airport were black.  Customers in front of me bypassed these cabs and got into the third and fourth in the queue, which were driven by white men.  Why would they do that?  Why would the white drivers allow queue-jumping?  Is it cos they is black?

Furthermore, in spite of his determination to air the issue, Penhall opens himself to challenge.  Why are two out of three of his characters white?  Why do they have more lines than the black character?  In this production why is the black character subjected to on-stage incarceration in a subterranean moat (like the one at the Zoological Society of London’s Whipsnade) even when he is supposed to be off-stage?

David Haig (Robert), Daniel Kaluuya (Christopher) and Luke Norris (Bruce) in Blue/Orange by Joe Penhall @ Young Vic. Directed by Matthew Xia. ©Tristram Kenton 05/16

OK.  The white doctors are educated and articulate and Christopher is not.  He is poor and lonely and impotent in society.  But Penhall gives Christopher lines which made me uneasy.  His references to drugs and Red Stripe beer are jokingly directed at his doctors’ stereotypical views, but nonetheless, they are written for delivery.  His verbal tics “know what I mean?” and “innit” are uncut so that he seems unable to express himself precisely.  Matthew Xia directs him to pace the stage crabwise as if he were one of Whipsnade’s caged chimpanzees peering out at spectators – as often as not he was actually clasping an orange!  I wanted to heckle or walk out in protest.  For me there is something implicitly racist in the conception of the play and in this production.  If I were Xia I would have asked Penhall for some rewrites (the play is too long anyway) and I would have worked against any possibility of a racist presentation of the black character.  The writer and the director are, in my view, culpable, at the very least, of insensitivity and, possibly, of something much worse.Unknown.jpeg

But having recently seen Undercover, a series about a black family, written by Peter Moffat, I wonder how authentic any black character can be when written by a white writer.  And I also wonder what it’s like for Daniel to play a black man written by a white man?  I did not ask him.  Instead I take comfort in the fact that he is writing himself – he was even writing scripts for Skins when I was teaching him – and I hope that he will write more credible black characters.

What I did say to him, when he rushed out – still only 5’10” – after the show was “Are you going to be all right playing that character?”  I was worried about the mental, emotional and physical strain on him, night after night.  “He’s psychotic!”  I said.  Daniel merely smiled and said he’d “zen it out” and patted me gently  on the shoulder – so he’s still cool too.  “Don’t worry miss. Thanks for coming, it means a truckload to me!”

As to Daniel’s performance, you only need to look at the images and the reviews.  Here is the final paragraph of Dominic Cavendish’s review in The Telegraph: “The laurels go, though, to Daniel Kaluuya, as the piggy-in-the-middle of their tug of war; by turns slouching, casual, charismatic, erratic, vulnerable, fierce, propelled out of his wits by their wrangling, he dances on the border between the bloke next door and the psycho you’d cross the street to avoid.  He’s a mind-game played on our own perceptions and prejudices. My prognosis: unmissable.”

That’s my boy.  Or is it cos he is black?


Don’t miss the link on my afterword!  Is it cos he is black?





Guests Of The Nation by Frank O’Connor

I have read the story for the first time – having only just heard of it!  The tale is a familiar one: the execution of Englishmen by Irishmen, in reprisal for English executions of Irish.  But there is something different about the way in which this story is written.  This blog is about what I noticed in the story but, as I have not read any criticism, I may just be repeating what everyone else has said.

Storyboard for short film Guests of a Nation directed by Daniel Speers. Swift Speers Productions.  2012.

The setting of Guests Of The Nation is clearly of central importance and there is a visual element about it which has led amateur and professional filmmakers, as well as theatre groups, to adapt it.  And its place in the genre of Irish Literature is assured by its stereotypical location – a cottage by a bog. But I am writing only of O’Connor’s use of language.

Note first that the title of the story, unlike that of the short film, incorporates the definite article, ‘The’ rather than the indefinite article ‘A’.  So Ireland is not a nation; she is the nation.  And this, it seems to me, illustrates a struggle that Ireland and Irish writers have engaged in, not only since 1916, and not only since 1926, but for many centuries.  Edward Spenser in A View of the State of Ireland (1596) presented an analysis of Ireland and Irishness, but this was a patronising, patrician, and, of course, English view.

How then is it possible for Ireland to establish herself as herself, rather than, what Edward Said terms ‘The Other’?   Even now, in 2016, the island of Ireland is still divided, preventing her from becoming,  as Donne said, ‘an island entire of itself’.  In using the definite article ‘The’ O’Connor is, as many Irish writers do, and have done, exploring the essence of his country and, perhaps, trying to contribute to the creation of Irishness.

In his ‘Nation’ O’Connor places some ‘Guests’ who are part of a occupying force.  The word ‘Guests’ might, at first be seen as ironic as the English have over the centuries not been invited guests so much as resented imperialists.  So what has O’Connor to say about this ‘Nation’ and these ‘Guests’? It is necessary, therefore, to see how he formulates the characters and motivations of the ‘Guests’.

Frank O'Connor.jpg
Frank O’Connor     (1903-1996)

This title, Guests Of The Nation, as titles often are, is key to understanding the text.  But I think the dialogue is even more important in explaining O’Connor’s point.  Something strange is afoot.  Register.  Cadence.  Syntax.  Accent.  The formal register, is usually deployed by English or Anglo-Irish characters in Irish Literature, but in this story, on the whole, it resides in the mouths of the Irish characters. One such, Donovan, who is described as having an ‘uncommon broad accent’ speaks thus: ‘And what difference does it make? The enemy have our prisoners as long or longer, haven’t they?’  There is no attempt to mimic an accent and the syntax is formal.  Donovan’s language is not recorded as regional.  Nor does it identify him as ‘slow’ although the narrator, the oddly named, Bonaparte, defines him as such.

On the other hand, one English character,  Hawkins, is almost more Irish than the Irish.  He knows ‘the countryside as well as we did and something more’.  Hawkins has also learnt to dance Irish dances, such as ‘The Walls of Limerick’ and ‘The Siege of Ennis” although he could not teach English dances to the Irish as ‘our lads at that time did not dance foreign dances on principle’.  O’Connor gives Hawkins a kind of Cockney ‘brogue’: ‘Mary Brigid Ho’Connell was asking abaout you and said ‘ow you’d a pair of socks belonging to ‘er young brother’.  The alternative spelling of ‘about’ seems to be O’Connor’s attempt to locate Hawkins’s language in a particular location and a particular class.  Additionally Hawkins loses the ‘H’ in his name, becoming, when addressed or described, ‘Awkins, but in his speech he adds unnecessary ‘H’s whilst aspirating those which should be pronounced.   ‘And you believe that God created Hadam and Hadam created Shem and Shem created Jehoshophat?  You believe all the silly hold fairy-tale about Heve and Heden and the happle?’

Clearly O’Connor is deploying humour here, as he does when he names the other Englishman Belcher, in spite of the fact that this character is generally silent.  When he does speak, Belcher invariably uses the word “chum”.  This word is slang, emanating from the upperclass English students of the University of Oxford, and means a friend.

Whether Belcher intended it or not his Irish guards choose to adopt both the word and the sentiment.  They become ‘chums’ of their English ‘Guests’.   At the point when the imminent execution is revealed Hawkins protests ‘Me and Bonaparte are chums’ receiving the reply from Bonaparte, who will take part in the killing, ‘I mean it, chum’.  There follows a heated discussion between the ‘chums’ opposing two ideas, that of ‘duty’ to a brigade or a country to that of being ‘chums’ and sticking together.  Bonaparte seems to agree with his ‘chums’ that the fellowship between men is more central to the human condition than any idea of ‘duty’.  Nevertheless he is complicit and active in the shooting of his ‘Guests’.  He is sticking to the principle that prevents the Irish from dancing English dances.  And also to the principle of saving his own life in the face of ‘men on the Brigade you daren’t let nor hinder without a gun in you hand’.

poster: 2012

But it is O’Connor’s use of the oh-so-English word ‘chum’ that strikes me as central to an understanding of the story.  Despite the backstory of this execution being in retaliation, O’Connor positions the Irish characters as oppressors; in cold blood they kill their ‘chums’ and sink them ‘in the windy bog’.  The Englishness of the word ‘chum’, a word which Bonaparte states ‘lingers painfully in my memory’, permeates the text throughout and suggests the power of the English nation, and her insistence that, even when it is a bog, ‘there’s some corner of a foreign field/That is forever England’.  It’s as if O’Connor is portraying Ireland as still ‘The Other’, as still unable to eschew that which is English.  The most senior Irish officer, Donovan, says, ‘Why the hell should your people take out four prisoners and shoot them in cold blood upon a barrack square?’  His idiom is English.  Through dialogue O’Connor subtly and covertly acknowledges that the power of England, English and Englishness is still overwhelming any attempt to create Ireland as entire to herself.

Works cited

Brooke, R. The Soldier Gloucester: New Numbers Magazine January 1915. Print.

Donne, J. Donne’s Devotions (1624) Cambridge University Press. 1923. Print.

O’Connor, F. Guests Of The Nation. London: Macmillan. 1931. Print.

Said, E. Orientalism. London: Penguin. 1977. Print.

Speers, D. Guests Of A Nation. Dir. Daniel Speers. SpearsSwift Productions. 2012. Film.


A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara


From gestation to publication A Little Life has had a controversial existence.  For this blog I am not going to analyse that discussion but, whilst referring to it, to give my own reaction to the novel.  The New Yorker, although the words are used positively, described the novel as subversive and graphic: I have read only about half of it and feel very uneasy.

At first A Little Life appears to be a paean to male friendship.  In an interview with Tim Adams, of the Guardian, Yanagihara states that she does not believe in marriage and sees friendship as ‘a purer relationship’.  This reminds me, oddly, of D.H.Lawrence’s interrogation of Rupert Birkin’s two relationships in Women in Love:  Ursula and Rupert alongside Rupert and Gerald.


As a young girl I was horrified to read Rupert’s mimicry of  Ursula, when he accuses of her of subconsciously yelling, ‘Do you love me? Yield knave or die’.  Ursula, as I did, insists on the supremacy of love over everything.  She wants to be everything to Rupert and for him to repeatedly tell her so.  But Rupert explains that she can never be enough for him; he needs an additional friendship with a man to be satisfied.  As in Rupert and Gerald’s relationship friendships in A Little Life contain, at times, homoerotic elements.

Oliver Reed and Alan Bates as Gerald and Rupert in the film of Women in Love      MGM 1969

In choosing four male friends for her protagonists, Yanagihara initially probes close, loving, long-lasting friendships between men.  Unusually she relied on a set of photographic portraits (collected over a number of years), not only as inspiration, but also to construct the narrative arc of the novel.  Two of these can be seen below; the remainder are on her Pinterest page.

Vestigial Velasquez by Geoffrey Chadsey 2010: The Guardian

The portraits are disturbing and I think it is by studying them that a reader can best understand the novel.  Critics have likened it to Nabokov’s Lolita, or to something in the horror genre by Stephen King, or to Donna Tartt’s  The Secret History.  Yanagihara herself speaks of A Little Life as being like ‘certain fairy tales’ and, in agreeing with her, I see a similarity to the dramatic and horrifying abuse explored in Martin McDonagh’s play, The Pillowman, which is also inspired by children’s stories.

The fact that there are no space breaks in the novel is important for Yanagihara as she wanted the reading experience to be immersive, and that may be why reading A Little Life makes me feel anxious and unhappy: resentful, perhaps, of being placed in the position of a voyeur.  Unsuprisingly Yanagihara found herself fighting with her editor about ‘how much a reader can take’ and seems to want the reader to feel complicit and ‘intrusive’.  It’s hard for the reader, exposed to such relentless pain, to bear it.  Before deciding to face the challenge of completing the novel I found it necessary to read reviews and research the writer.

The Backwards Man in his Hotel Room by Diane Arbus: icollection

‘I wanted there to be something too much about the violence in the book, but I also wanted there to be an exaggeration of everything, an exaggeration of love, of empathy, of pity, of horror. I wanted everything turned up a little too high. In the end you are really left on your own.’ Yanagihara’s credo cued me to think of W.C. Pilley’s reaction to the publication of Women in Love: ‘I do not claim to be a literary critic, but I know dirt when I smell it, and here is dirt in heaps – festering, putrid heaps which smell to high heaven.’ This is my response to A Little Life. I know that such abuses take place in the world, and are taking place at this moment but, in reading on, and being interested, I feel as if I am allowing or even encouraging the cruelty to continue.

Yanagihara is interested in the concept of ‘not getting better’ and states in an interview with David K. Wheeler that ‘if you are going to end a book without hope, then it has to be a hard-won without hope’ as she thinks ‘otherwise it’s just you showing how dark you are’.  So her aim seems to be that the reader buys into hope and that the hope will evaporate. In Women in Love Gerald finally finds the end to his suffering, ‘Yet why be afraid? It was bound to happen. To be murdered!  He was bound to be murdered, he could see it. This was the moment when the death was uplifted, and there was no escape.’

‘ He could feel the blow descending, he knew he was murdered. Vaguely wandering forward, his hands lifted as if to feel what would happen, he was waiting for the moment when he would stop, when it would cease. It was not over yet.’

A Little Life is not over for me yet and I do not know what happens in the end other than, as for Gerald, friendship will not save Jude.  Jude is the patron saint of lost causes: sadly he proves to be a lost cause despite his friends.

Works cited

Adams, T. Hanya Yanagihara: ‘I wanted everything turned up a little too high‘.  London: The Observer. 26th July 2016. Interview.

Lawrence, D.H. Women in Love. London: Thomas Seltzer. 1920

Pilley, W. C. John Bull 17th September 1921. Print.

Yanagihara, H. A Little Life. New York: Doubleday. 2015

Yanagihara, H., Wheeler, D.K. In Conversation. Youtube. January 26th 2016. Interview.