It’s a media staple. The right-wing vacillate between trying to appear non-judgemental while secretly whispering “disgusting.” The left-wing alternate between trying to appear supportive while sneakily appropriating the topic in service of wider agitation on a plethora of causes.
We are talking sexuality, gender, trans-sexuality, gay rights. Rainbow flags, the Tavistock scandal, unisex toilets, Pride marches and work tribunals. What we never speak about is individuals. Alexis Gregory does now, brilliantly.
Using the verbatim method of having actors speak live the words spoken by actual people, we meet Jack (Elijah Ferreira), Samuel (Taofique Folarin), Alicia (May Kelly) and Tami (Mary Malone). We intercut between the quartet, contrasting and comparing their life experiences – the real and completely normal people behind the labels society chooses to pin on them.
LaMont provides a vocal introduction to the recording, a mournful invitation to cry to your soul. In a bare Hackney Empire studio, with just four chairs and Mike Robertson’s inspired pastel tapestry of lighting colour changes to enhance the impact of each person, autobiographies unfold.
Jack was born Jennifer. He thought as a child that his body would correct itself, but as an adult knew that the only possible option to express himself would come via surgery. With an alcoholic father and relatives who relished using his birth name even as he suffered post-operative pain, Jack’s common-sense attitude is his strength. Ferreira is best as a physical performer, a body learning male posture being a highlight of the work even before delivering well-judged advice.
Tami was less fortunate than Jack. A transformation from born Dylan to female Tami is ongoing using drugs bought online against medical advice. A mother’s punch to the face driving her into abusive care homes at 14, prostitution to survive as the system itself fails her. Victoria Winfield’s make up design gives Malone the final touch as her distress is shared with carefully conservative delivery ambushing quite astonishing cruelty.
Samuel is a Nigerian who came to England aged 18. A strong family, a strong church, a strong community which cannot find a place for a gay black man. Escape seems impossible, integration with a community who may understand him even more so. Folarin is a chrysalis of acting, the chemicals mixing inside a shell as his character evolves into something quite beautiful at his story’s conclusion.
Finally, Alicia is a lesbian – as the playground taunts remind her from the age of 11. Alcohol and prescription painkiller addiction alienates her family still further, and in a rare burst of humour it is ticking the “lesbian” box on the form of a homeless charity which begins her ascent. Kelly is direct, using confrontation of the camera to animate the many blackout holes in her tale. Her eyes are the indicators of how life is, light flickering within them, burning strong or guttering with the flow of the story.
We end with a group discussion of what “safe” means. Perhaps the only slightly contrived section of writing, it contains helpfully Jack’s observation that he considers himself “normal” and is happy to explain himself to those who wish to understand. Following that common sense, Yrsa Daley-Ward’s poetry spoken by Tami acts as the final interesting coda.
Aside from the power of both words and performance, this viewer took away from the piece a single simple conclusion. Had all four people been accepted for who they are at the earliest stage, practically every other issue in their lives would not have happened. Their mental health, had they been considered “normal” by wider society would have been strong enough to help them navigate sometimes difficult family backgrounds. Scant social services and charity resources would have stretched further if society’s collective mind had itself stretched itself to be inclusive. Most of all, simply not being afraid to learn by asking will provide the education to make this happen in the distant future.
One hour in which you will make new friends and form new attitudes for life.
Available FREE to watch at: hackneyempire.co.uk/safe
Support the Albert Kennedy Trust (AKT), as they support those whose stories are told here: www.akt.org.uk.
Photo credit: Jane Hobson. Used by kind permission.