This autumn, we are workshopping new show ideas with some incredible artists. Since we can’t do open rehearsals right now, we wanted to share some exciting insights online instead.
How is culture an act of resistance?
Peter Brathwaite is a professional opera singer. His involvement with the Gate began with the Gate/ENO coproduction of Effigies of Wickedness: Songs Banned by the Nazis in 2018, which was developed from an idea by Peter to bring attention to lesser-known works of composers silenced by the Nazi regime. His pioneering Rediscovering Black Portraiture series, made during the Covid-19 pandemic, can be seen in exhibition with King’s College London/Wellcome Trust in Autumn 2021. He is currently writing a book for Getty Publications about the original series. Peter is an advocate of suppressed voices and champion of new work.
In October this year, Peter reunited with some of the Effigies creative team – Ellen McDougall, Anthony Simpson-Pike, Rosie Bergonzi, Sarah Jane Lewis and Corin Buckeridge along with production drama therapist Wabriya King – for a week-long research and development workshop on a brand new project – Insurrection. This workshop was an exploration and recovery of the songs and history of people enslaved in Barbados during British colonial rule. We sat down with Peter to ask him some questions about the project and an insight into the workshop.
Hi Peter! Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I am an opera singer on a mission to uncover marginalised, forgotten or silenced voices. Beyond classical performance, my work encompasses broadcasting, writing and visual art.
Can you describe the Insurrection workshop in three words?
Necessary. Noisy. Healing.
How do you begin workshopping a show built out of songs?
Given this music is rooted in the oral tradition, it only really lives when it is sung and there is an audience to complete the community. As Edward Kamau Brathwaite says: “the noise and sounds that the maker makes are responded to by the audience and are returned to him. Hence we have the creation of a continuum where meaning truly resides.”
Our workshop was built upon singing the songs together, hearing them out loud, and having an ‘audience’ to facilitate the kind of total expression Brathwaite identifies as being central to oral folk tradition. When you sing these songs it’s clear to see that they come from a historical experience where people had to rely on the power within themselves – their voices.
Can you tell us a bit about the improvisation aspect?
Improvisation is a key feature of folk music making in Barbados. The Bajan folk songs we are focussing on were meant to be passed on orally – adapted, stretched and diminished, according to the performer’s mood or imagination. The suppression of music during British colonial rule, had a severe impact on what we know today about music of enslaved people in Barbados. We have to improvise and imagine, using the fragments and recollections that are available to us today.
Our musical touchstone is An African Song or Chant from Barbados that dates from the time of enslavement (mid-seventeenth-century to 1824). This song text is the only known manuscript of an African work song that was chanted in the sugar fields of Barbados. Written in a minor key, it’s unlike other Barbadian folk songs which privilege the major tonality. The song was transcribed by Granville Sharpe, a founder of the antislavery movement in Great Britain. The song represents how the enslaved saw their lot and how they commented on their lived experience. It also represents one of the tools that the oppressed used in their resistance and as a strategy for surviving the brutality of enslavement.
Since workshopping the project I’ve discovered that an 18th century instruction manual (Instructions for the Management of a Plantation in Barbados and for the Treatment of Negroes), co-authored by one of my white enslaver ancestors, includes a number of ideologically correct songs that were written for enslaved people to sing — propaganda music.
Many thanks to the Genesis Foundation who generously supported this project as part of the November 2021 Kickstart Fund.
Search #OpenGate on Twitter or Instagram (@gatetheatre) for extra snapshots of the development process of these projects. #TheProcessIsPolitical.