It seems like the arts world is championing diversity now more so than ever – but it’s clear we still have a long way to go. Faced with an industry that all too often places limits on black performers, black female artist Phina Oruche is now putting her narrative back in her own hands. Oruche’s comedic one-woman show Identity Crisis, which debuts next month at Ovalhouse, will feature Oruche’s observations on her racial identity and what others have made of it in the worlds of arts and media. In this guest blog, Oruche grapples with identity and shares how penning a one-woman show has finally allowed her to speak her truth.
Identity is a complex and puzzling thing – a conundrum for many. What is it exactly that defines you? The colour of your skin? The postcode in which you were born or now reside? Religion? Don’t get me started! If I had a penny for every slur, or worse, every drop of blood, that has been spilled erroneously by people divided by or citing a deity, then I would be a richer woman. (Speaking of gender, is that where you hang your identity? Or do you glean it from your friends?)
I wrote Identity Crisis because I had one – largely because of the black ceiling of achievement in drama, the media and radio, which I felt myself grazing in many ways. I kept being defined by my colour, age, gender – and amusingly my hair too! This was only made worse by several incidents, such as only being allowed to speak to black people on the radio, only being able to get TV work if I sewed white women’s hair on my head and political incidents, where I learned speaking about these things in a way other than theatre makes you trouble, and gets you blacklisted. I have not broadcast a radio show nor worked on TV because I mentioned my issues with all-black time slots and content on certain stations. If I hadn’t reclaimed my narrative by immersing myself in theatre and writing and investing in my sense of humour – I would have been seriously heading for a mental breakdown. When others write your story, your narrative or your rules, you are dependent on them to hire you. Unless you are extremely well placed, you’re at a serious disadvantage.
Looking at closed doors, I went and did my master’s degree, where I looked at black representation in British soaps. I had two choices: broil in self-pity waiting for a break, or dig into my imagination and toolbox and play with sweet abandon. I chose the latter.
The result, Identity Crisis, depicts my joy in creating characters. I play nine: black, white, old, young, male and female. I started with a scrap of paper and by believing in [director/dramaturg] Bill Hopkinson. Next came a thought or a shoe, or the gait of a person I once knew, and then I allowed the process – which, for me, is nothing short of magical – to let their voices percolate and grow. The show was a series of monologues initially. Bill’s genius was to have them talk to one another; he kept challenging me to go back to the pen. Bill and I – and my husband and my child and the majority of people I know – love people, despite class, culture or anything else you can imagine to divide. This allowed us to appreciate the feedback from audience after audience on all those arts council feedback forms – and even sweeter, the audiences have agreed with me that the piece has a broad appeal.
No matter that people will think Identity Crisis is black work and try to programme it as such. It’s human work, which proves my life theory that we are one: There is more than unites us than divides us. Those divisions, real or imagined, are solely at the construct of man, not God.
I wonder why I never had the courage to create a one-woman show earlier – I would have saved myself a lot of angst. I am starting to notice some black women who are blazing a trial in one-women shows; one of my favourites, Anna Deavere Smith, has been doing it brilliantly in NYC for a long time. Another performer closer to home is Adura Onashile and her brilliant history lesson in HeLa.
The greatest thing about the power of the pen is that you can guide people to understand your perspective. I love to collaborate. I love being cast, and obviously, that process is massively validating. But sometimes, as a black woman, the stories are written by someone who you can tell doesn’t know about blackness (nor women, for that matter). Not always, but a lot of times, and my research showed me the weakest link in TV drama is the lack of these diverse voices.
Now, of course, I can’t claim to know about all blackness either. That’s the problem I find in a lot of the writing I am handed: the assumption made by anyone, black, white or blue, as to what black culture is. These assumptions often result in an under-class narrative, or, for black writers, the baggage of feeling we can only say bright sparkly things, because instead of speaking our own truth, we’re seemingly speaking for our entire race. My work makes no such claims. I know there is such a broad spectrum of black experiences, much like there would be for the experiences of any race.
And as a whole, the notion of race is a construct in any case. I chose to be happy how I was made, but not take any stock in it. I am cheerfully waiting for the day when parts are written and the actor provides the DNA!