Stories of those shunned and outcast by society...
Developing narrative and concepts
Out of the end of our cast’s research and development residency in April 2021, it was clear that more work was needed to explore and develop our narrative themes and who it is we are wanting to speak to. Along came Nqobani Mlilo in his role as researcher and outreach coordinator, working with writer, historian, poet and excellent human, Dr Edson Burton (pictured right).
Together they are developing the “misfits concept”, visiting libraries and archives in Bristol, uncovering real stories on which to base our next development... this is work in progress at the time of writing (Sep 2021), which is an exciting place to be and also share with people!
Research is ongoing but so far Edson & Bani have uncovered tales of famous side show performers such as Saartje Baartmann the Hottentot Venus, the 8 foot African giantess, an African American ex slave strong man known for bending iron bars with his teeth, the 48 stone Jersey lilly a shaved Bear displayed as a 'savage Aethopian' the 'African Hermaphrodite' singing conjoined twins, Princess Caraboo & many more.
These stories are uncomfortable to our modern sensibilities but should be seen as the ways in which marginalised people found their escape and greater agency than that afforded to their peers.
So here are some of Edson’s brainstorming notes from the work so far:
“Concept Misfits -
Link to Harlem Renaissance – Swing Circus – The intersecting stories of those shunned and outcast by society because they were deemed lesser, and being deemed lesser were controlled, othered, limited.
Women, white and black were controlled by social expectations, controlled so that via biology the legacies and wealth of men could be enhanced, enlarged while they were not able to benefit.
Occupations, trades deemed respectability ironically allowed a degree of freedom that women could not otherwise enjoy ‘sex work including burlesque,’ ‘actors’ ‘circus.’
The hint of African influences like African ‘bodies’ were treated with curiosity & contempt, fetishised & discarded.
(Image credit: André Pattenden; performer: Precious Onyenekwu Tatah)
Performance’ circus, dance, ‘popular’ theatre a la music hall were spaces where people of African heritage were allowed to flourish especially if there was no risk of challenging or offending white sensibilities.
Spaces of transgression sex work, burlesque, circus were of even greater means to independence for Black performers given their options were otherwise so limited, given also the illicit nature of White desire.
In the Harlem Renaissance the ‘respectable and the disreputable aspects of Black joy and White participation come together uniquely in a groundbreaking moment that made evident the genius of Black talent and it’s intersection with marginalised voices everywhere.
The story of the outsider can be told in any British city but Bristol has the added resonance of the transatlantic slave trade and how social stratification that proscribed the lives of ‘outsiders’ was in part a legacy of the transatlantic slave trade. The trade also set in motion the arrival of African peoples as slaves, sailors, performers to Bristol.
We suggest our Misfits performance trail inhabits a world criss crossing time where characters, moments and spaces inspired by the history of outsiders and Bristol express their journey from the bottom to the sublime through dance."
(Image credit: André Pattenden; Performers: Loz James and Francis Odongo)
We are fundraising again now to employ our amazing artists to turn this work into a glorious physical reality. Please spread the word and donate if you can, our paypal money pool (which doesn’t take any commission from donations) is here:
If you are inspired by this, want to be involved, volunteer, if you are curating a theatre or festival, would like to book or support the show in some way - we would love to hear from you! Please get in touch at loz @ swingcircus.co.uk