The old Oxford Carnival used to snake up Cowley Road and find itself in the center of town. This is something I’m told mid-way through my conversation with two of the creative voices behind #Ending The Silence, director, performer and writer Euton Daley and actress Amantha Edmead. It’s funny to think of the floats and steel-pans following the exact route I took to meet the pair, past the Magdalen roundabout and down the Highstreet. As we discuss, it so often feels like there are two Oxfords, symbolized in the divide between the dreaming spires of the 38 colleges and the long stretches of East Oxford into Hillingdon. In its time, the Carnival was something which bridged the two, bringing different groups of people together in a celebration of afro-Caribbean culture.
Hearing about #Ending the Silence, it seems to approximate a carnival in itself. In both its form and content, it is focused on a composite, hybridized form of storytelling. The performance is divided into three individual 30 minute sections. The first investigates the tradition of black protest, the second the experiences of race in the everyday and the third is a look to the future of Afro-Caribbean culture in Britain, and the world. In each of these vignettes, a variety of different mediums is drawn on. As Daley tells me, the show employs ‘song, dance, and visual aspects’ and Edmead adds that ‘poetry becomes the musical score’. According to Daley, ‘the western concept of theatre is very much about putting things in categories and boxes… a piece that’s physical theatre, a piece that’s dance, a piece that’s something else’.
However, #Ending the Silence fights against that. In fact, so drastically defiant is it towards conventional forms that the show will be preceded by drumming in the foyer of the Old Firesation and then proceeded by a DJ set. The production seeps out of any boundaries one might wish to put it in, transcending labels and ensuring that its themes spin on and on beyond the confines of the auditorium
For Daley, the show also represents something personal. He talks about the dreams his parents once had of returning home after moving to England 50 years ago. Coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush, Daley’s vision forms part of a far wider discussion about what it means to be a member of the black diaspora: an experience that stretches across generations and is informed by the clash of different cultures and heritages. He also speaks about his passion for performance poetry which, during his tenure as artistic director of the Pegasus Theatre, he never found time to explore properly. This show fulfils a private promise to bring the spoken-word to the stage as part of a full theatrical spectacle. First performed as a twenty minute piece as part of an evening showcase of work, his initial idea has expanded in length and size, with double the cast and a far longer running time. It certainly looks set to impress and provoke.
Neither Daley or Edmead shy away from the political aspects of the work either. Asked about representation within theatre they argue that even the slow improvements in diversity among professional companies mask wider structural issues. After all, where are the black writers and directors? ‘The stories are still the same’, Daley tells me, ‘the form is still the same’. What we have now is ‘just black people doing Shakespeare’.
The argument he makes is that we need new work that authentically addresses the reality of race, something this show does in bucket loads. According to Edmead, ‘Theatre gives you a space to show many different perspectives’ and so it certainly doesn’t make sense that it is not used more often to challenge the consensus and shift the debate. Perhaps part of the trouble is that ‘people drumming and doing spoken word is seen as lesser’. When the western norms of performance are so institutionalized, it becomes even harder to rewrite the narrative.
With the recent establishment of BAME drama in Oxford and a number of shows specifically designed to highlighted minority voices and stories, it seems there may be new things happening in student drama itself. When I tell the pair about this, Edmead offers a piece of advice and vote of confidence she was once given by Daley himself: ‘Just do it! Just get on and just do it!’. This play offers an exciting new space which involves its audience in a questioning of the status quo of society, storytelling and theatrical form. I left the Firestation invigorated by my discussions with these two creatives and hope that, should anyone miss out on what is going to be an incredible show, there will be many more like it to come.