Next Tuesday go to the Playhouse and break out of the Oxford bubble. It’ll be the best thing you’ve done all term, and Chickenshed’s As a Mother of a Brown Boy will be by far the best piece of professional theatre you have seen in a long time.
Chickenshed are all about a perspective shift. When the company was founded 25 years ago in north London, the message was simple: that life is good if you’re in it. This remains true today: theatre is at heart a social medium and it must be inclusive.
The group’s emphasis on a kind of modern social humanism infliltrates all of its work. And in the case of Brown Boy, the production’s commitment to human issues goes far deeper than its aesthetic. Director Christine Niering has a hugely personal relationship with the production, as the narrative centres around the traumatic ordeal that her sister underwent when her son was killed. He died in a police chase after being caught up in jewellery thefts in London. The boy had been a member of Chickenshed, where he sought refuge from the harsh realities of growing up as a fatherless black male on the council estates of north London.
Niering is emphatic about the play’s human message. In a piece which deals so provocatively with the ‘black issue’, alongside difficult questions of single parenthood, the danger of dwelling in the solely political dimension is avoided.
This is largely due to the way in which the production is staged artistically. Connectivity is central to Chickenshed’s message; making connections across social and physical boundaries has always been important. Chickenshed productions incorporate not only able-bodied cast members, but also physically or mentally disabled people. It is all about returning to the issue itself: political or social issues are, at heart, human ones. So long as we are able to see through this politicised veil, we are able to see the truth. And for Chickenshed, in art there is truth.
Niering believes Chickenshed’s role is both social and artistic, but that the former must not be at the latter’s expense – ‘our ultimate responsibility is to produce excellent theatre. The only way we can do this is by drawing in individuals who do come from all over the place.’ If Chickenshed were to target one section of society, they would not be able to express the experiences of such a diverse group of people so effectively. It is the company’s social spectrum which makes it unique.
My sister is a member of Chickenshed. She comes from a nice, middle class family and is lucky enough to have been privately educated. Yet, she works and leads young people with severe learning disabilities, kids from the nearby council estates our parents warned us not to walk through. This is the amazing thing about Chickenshed. It unites people regardless of background. Once you are on stage, it’s not about where you’re from: it’s about where you are going.
Ultimately, the production is socio-politically relevant. But in projecting through theatre, the piece breaks down the political and gives a simple message: this is human. In labeling someone as criminal, black, IC1, we immediately alienate that person from him or herself. It’s about treating people with decency, giving them the respect they deserve. As a Mother of a Brown Boy is unique, and deserves your undivided attention.