Choir director, music director, activist, composer, journalist. Led the official choir of the March on Washington (1963)
Jessye’s musical leadership during the 1920s and 1930s placed her at the helm of some of the most important significant productions during this period, on Broadway and in Hollywood. She was a music director for King Vidor’s Hallelujah (1929), the first Black cast sound film (though Vidor was white), and her choir, the Dixie Jubilee Singers appeared in the film. She was accepted to university aged 14, because she wasn’t allowed to enroll in high school education as a Black woman. She met and was inspired by Will Marion Cook, and after graduation worked as a high school teacher. In this article I’ve found some of her remarks in interviews and coverage of her work.
So this perhaps the most tricksy part of all of this – how do we know that this musical engages with whiteness? Part of the answer is because it doesn’t engage with anything else. To be unconcerned with race in the autumn of 1985 is a luxury only whiteness could allow; being indifferent is a privilege only whiteness would embrace.
The musical as a form relies on a relatively straightforward dramaturgical structure, broadly used in the majority of musicals, where a set number of characters, usually relatively small in number, go through some kind of conflict or experience and their story is resolved by the end of the show, ideally with some kind of happy ending. The happy ending in Les Mis might be fairly thin on the ground, but there is some kind of hopefulness. In this part I’m going to explore how the musical is structured, and consider what does this have to do with Autumn 1985, and narrative whiteness?
Handsworth Songs opens with an image of a Black security guard looking at a large engine (perhaps in a museum), intercutting with a series of unsettling images and sirens (birds roosting, a rotating clown face), before settling on the civic centre of Birmingham and the statues of the ‘great noble men of Birmingham’ outside the city’s library buildings. Images of the morning after street protests are intercut with the same clown; then Home Secretary Douglas Hurd visiting the residents of Birmingham. (Hurd had to leave the area quickly after his arrival, news footage records his unwelcome visit).
In one of the most distressing sequences of Handsworth Songs, which comes only minutes in, a young Black teenager is chased by police, we seem him violently restrained as other young Black people look on – watching but not surprised by what they are seeing. The film then moves into a series of archival footage of earlier Caribbean immigrants to the UK, of hopeful wedding photos and ballroom dancing. Homi Bhabha argues that Handsworth Songs resists time because it stages ‘the historic present of the riots’[i], it explicitly presents fractured time:
Les Misérables was in rehearsals when the so called Handsworth Riots took place. During 9–11 September 1985, Handsworth, an area to the north-west of Birmingham, experienced widespread protests and street violence. In this post, we’ll look at the context for that Autumn and see how the chronology overlaps.
I’ve been sitting on this academic article for a couple of years – I meant to come back and edit it and revise it, but decided that ultimately I wanted it to exist. As ever, I’m writing from the position of a white British academic in making these arguments.It explores the relationship in much further detail and thinks about how whiteness is coded into what we experience in megamusicals.Because it’s written in the ‘before-times’ – it doesn’t mention the most recent summer of protest.Also, academic articles are generally massive – I’ve posted it as a series of blog postsand slightly edited it so it works on a blog series rather than an individual piece.
Save the Hulme Hippodrome campaign (https://niamos.co.uk/savethehippodrome) is raising funds to save the theatre from developers (https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/save-hulme-hippo). The theatre has an important place in British theatre history, as a surviving venue in the variety theatre networks that dominated British theatre from 1900 to the 1950s. In this article, I explore some of the performers who worked at this beautiful and at-risk theatre.
This is a session about finding stories in the archive which are inclusive and open up the presence of people who have been thought to be not part of the official story. It is for the Doctoral College here at the University of Wolverhampton, and partly for them and anyone else interested in this topic I’ve put together some notes and starting points. There’s also a huge overview of digitised archives you might consult and look at.
The key thing to remember before we get too far into this is to note that the language we use to discuss these topics matters. If we talk about diversity rather than minoritised histories, we are drawing on a specifically white word:
Diversity is a white word, or as Ghassan Hage describes, a ‘white concept’. It seeks to make sense, through the white lens, of difference by creating, curating and demanding palatable definitions of ‘diversity’ but only in relation to what this means in terms of whiteness.
[Digging through my google drive came across this that I wrote for a session on creative writing, and thought I’d share, though I’ve lost the picture I drew of the extremely Jeremy Bearemy style writing approach my work usually takes. Please enjoy!]
I wrestle with revisions on this one article for months on end. To keep the appearance of working on it, it’s always open somewhere in the eight microsoft word documents I have open at any given moment. I drag it out when I talk to students who are revising dissertations – and I show them that I am doing this too, it’s normal, I say, attempting to sound convincing, it’s a community of writers and we are all learning to write better.
Except I’m not exactly doing writing, I’m just keeping a document open on my laptop.
Realistically this is about as close as I’m getting at this point, because other than dithering about with paragraphs one and two, I’ve done nothing for months. The feeling of not having finished it is somewhere between the nagging sense of ‘I’ve left the hob on’, and the utter guilt of leaving my crying daughter in the arms of the childminder. ‘YOUR WORK SPOILS EVERYTHING’ she shouts, and I think, you know, you might have a point.