Putting Words in Your Mouth is the most important performance art show I’ve seen this year.
Travis Alabanza, Jamal Gerard and Lasana Shabazz are the three excellent performers who star upon the stage. Dressed in funereal attire, black suits and black ties with white shirts, it becomes apparent that what they mourn is a white liberal vision of harmonious Britain that’s never really existed. As the three queer POC artists lip-sync to audio recordings of UKIP and EDL members, the idealised belief in an equalising society is deftly ripped apart.
Putting Words in Your Mouth was conceived and directed by renowned white performance artist Scottee. After feeling disenfranchised from mainstream politics he began exploring political groups for working class queers, where he found the EDL LGBT and UKIP LGBT groups on Facebook. Scottee and his audio producer proceeded to interview these group members, played as three regional voices in the show: Leicester, Birmingham and Manchester.
The production begins relatively lightly as the three voices talk about realising they were gay. Although the lip-syncing itself is not exactly perfect, the performers are charismatic enough to pull off a viable approximation of the task, and are all eminently watchable. Keeping the recorded voices’ verbal stumbles and corrections in verbatim, adds a layer of humour to the initial skits when Gerard, for instance, eye-rolls and gesticulates as Birmingham.
Captivating imagery is laden on with an adroit eye by Scottee. As the voices talk about drag, black bob wigs are taken from boxes and placed upon the performers’ heads; Leicester, performed by Travis Alabanza, speaks of his passion for Margaret Thatcher at which point Alabanza flaunts a black leather handbag; and all three performers use a glaring shade of pink lipstick to powerful effect. We get the feeling the words are dressing their performers.
Yet there is a point where the words tip over from prejudice to bile. And as they do so, the simple but immensely effective set is brought into play. Two papered screens are moved as the performers, who lack voices of their own but what is being played upon them, write down words from ‘MULTICULTURALISM’ to ‘ASSIMILATE’. There is a moment of pure and emotive brilliance where a particularly loaded word is literally whitewashed away with paint.
Shabazz is thrillingly furious in the latter half of this production. Even as he is bound to still lipsync the words of ‘Manchester’, his anger manifests itself in his body and face, in actions that reverberate through the audience: a lectern punched, ‘ FUCK OFF!’ suddenly released, a slug of red spat across the St George cross. Yet even that anger cannot win against the words spewing overhead. We eventually see three young queer people of colour defeated, heads low.
The sheer and savage emotion in this image is indescribable. By working with Scottee to present themselves as the vessels for racist vitriol, Alabanza, Gerard and Shabazz have provided a glimpse into their lived experience. As was stated afterwards in the post-show discussion, whereas white people can listen to these words, be righteously appalled then go back to their privilege, these words are opinions that people of colour combat every day.
Arguably there were other angles that could have been integrated into Putting Words in Your Mouth. The psychological effects of growing up LGBT in a heteronormative world, and how resultant low self-worth can manifest itself in attacking other minorities, was not explored. The sexuality of these voices cannot be dismissed as incidental, or as mutually exclusive to their political identities. Yet as a piece that holds a mirror up to LGBT racists, it excels.
It’s felt uncomfortable to mention people’s skin colour so explicitly in this review, but to not to do so is to buy into the “colourblind” myth that is often perpetuated amongst the so-called liberal elite. Why do some white people often go to great lengths to not mention the fact that some people are not white? Perhaps because it provides comforting blinkers to a fact that still glares like a theatre spotlight: racism is systemically entrenched into this country.
Putting Words In Your Mouth will be touring the UK in 2017 including Home in Manchester.
Words: Patrick Cash