It was a privilege to be involved in ‘Aspiration and Representation’, a day-long event at Goldsmiths, University London (19th January 2017), curated by Deirdre Osborne and focused on issues of identity, past, present and future. And it was an absolute privilege to have another opportunity see SuAndi perform her signature show, The Story of M, the highlight of the day’s very rich and thought-provoking, identity-related events.
M, the moving story of SuAndi’s working-class mother, Margaret, raising her two, mixed-race children, was originally commissioned by the ICA in the nineties and anthologised in 4 For more (2002), a collection of works by artists from the Black arts community. ‘Aspiration and Representation’ saw the launch of a new, single-text edition of M published by Oberon https://www.oberonbooks.com/the-story-of-m.html. Behind this initiative lies the very welcome news that M/Margaret is about to make her way into secondary schools via the EdExcel, A-Level Examination Board (English Literature syllabus with a Black British literature list).
As post-Brexit Britain shores up its island mentality and ‘Trumpton’ USA endorses bordered, anti-immigration policies, we are in urgent need of shows such as ‘M’ – theatre resistant to the racist imagination. What M tells are the histories of racial abuse endured by Margaret and her children. It’s a personal, biographical story that forms an epic, poetic and political tale of race, gender and class relations in Liverpool and Manchester, spanning the mid to late twentieth century. So, we hear about M’s racist neighbours, stores that won’t give her credit, or how, during her time in a Magdalene laundry, she managed to keep her son from enforced adoption, because nobody wanted a black baby. Despite this discrimination, M does not retreat into self-pity or a state of victimisation: hers is a rebellious spirit that laughs rather than cries in the face of adversity.
Performing her mother’s story, SuAndi is a consummate storyteller. Giving us M at the end of her life (dying of cancer) and thinking back over her lifetime, she adopts an intimate, chatting-to-the-audience style of delivery. With SuAndi seated in a wheelchair and projected slides to designate a hospital setting (slides are used throughout to locate and illustrate episodes in M’s life), her nursing assistant addresses the audience as M’s hospital visitors. At one juncture, M/SuAndi admonishes us by playfully suggesting we don’t take up hospital visiting as a ‘career’, since we are ‘all bloody useless!’. It’s a moment that typifies her ability as a performer to establish an audience rapport that allows for this kind of gentle mocking. Equally, Margaret’s stories may often be dark, but the bitter-sweet humour laced through SuAndi’s telling elicits our affection for and attention to M. It occasions our laughter, but also invites us to question: why the laughter when racism means it’s ‘not funny to be called dirty and smelly’?
Overall, by keeping hold of histories that urgently need to be heard in the interests of more progressive futures, The Story of M speaks racially marked truths to the power of those who would sooner white-out the past (and the future). Stepping out of the character of Margaret at the close of M, SuAndi recollects her mother’s ‘dreadful laugh’ that reminds her to be proud of her mixed-race ancestry; the laugh that signals a determination to keep on keeping on; and the ‘laugh that said they won’t keep us down for ever’. My sincere hope is that before too long this laugh will be heard reverberating around secondary schools; that this celebration of Margaret’s ordinary/extraordinary life will assist younger generations towards understanding identity ‘matters’.