Guest post from Sabrina Richmond, a performer and writer and participant of the Refugee Week Leadership Programme. (Originally published on the Shakespeare’s Globe Blog)
How did I come to be at Shakespeare’s Globe?
To understand how it is that anything comes to be, one must reflect on the journey taken and equally important, use it to pave the road ahead.
In November 2018, Counterpoints Arts, a leading national organisation that engages with refugee and migrant experiences through arts and cultural programmes invited applications for their new Refugee Week Leadership initiative – aimed at incorporating people with lived experience of displacement and movement (including generationally) at the heart of Refugee Week. Not only to have a seat at the table but also to use our existing skills and expertise to lead – nothing about us without us. 116 applicants submitted for 5 roles, showing how deep the hunger is to change the conversation.
How I really came to that application last November manifested in childhood when my family was raising me in exile from South Africa’s apartheid regime. I inherited the legacy of displacement and was shaped by the strong bonds of longing, very early on already beginning to question what is home? because my family’s home was an idea. An idea that became alive in our physical home through food, song and dance. I also inherited the vow my mother – displaced as a little girl – made to return home one day. My mother is fierce and resilient – words we love to hear when we talk migration but I do often think what was that experience like for the little girl? At times, being fierce, resilient and hopeful are celebrated in isolation but it is in fact the emergence from loss and longing that makes them meaningful and not a hollow platitude.
I also grew up loving my birth home, Zambia, understanding the deep layers of my identity on a cultural level. Learning to sing two national anthems for example and enjoying exploring their similarities. Across Britain today there are thousands of children who are inherently robust because they live a truth of knowing that home is a place in our hearts and minds as much as it is in a building. They are robust because, like me, they will face the question of where do you belong? Both asked by themselves but also in the hostility attached to the nationalism we find ourselves living in today. The hostility that suggests that to love, practice and honour the parts of our heritage not of the UK is to reject it – identity and culture are more complex than that.
Second chances & transitions
I think we all look at life through a lens that is shaped by the experiences that mould us. For me, this is most especially the moment that marked the completion of my transition into puberty: I witnessed how Nelson Mandela, the symbol of South Africa’s struggle for freedom and equality had to evolve to become the symbol of our peace – by asking for our highest selves, asking us to dare to share the country in both the spirit and tangibility of equality – a second chance with tenacity. He convinced us all that though peace and social cohesion are not easily achieved, war and separation were not sustainable especially when we all inhabit the same country with our fates intertwined.
South Africa’s transition to democracy involved a reconciliation process – opting for the truth for forgiveness vehicle. Though there was not nearly enough truth, we took what we could.
The thing about transitions is that no single part of the process can be skipped.
The United Kingdom is in transition, though I will admit that it feels more like living in limbo because we don’t know what we will evolve into. A caterpillar evolves into a butterfly, a little girl into a young woman. What about us here in the UK?
As a performer, I think of myself as being in the business of humanity and what I love about every piece I encounter is that I am asked for my highest self – I really enjoy living in that realm. There are, inevitably, hard bits that I often spend sleepless nights grappling with but some moment presents itself and I emerge discovering more about my humanity.
Are we, here in the UK prepared to accept this part of the transition? I am first to admit that this part is an incredibly hard bit but it is here nonetheless. But perhaps there is a part of it we can choose to skip, the part that draws us into the lowest parts of ourselves. The part that leaves hurt unacknowledged making it impossible to even begin talking about second chances.
Looking back and a future built on reconciliation
I am a triple whammy of intersectional identity as far as society goes – black, an African woman & identify as a migrant. Though political status does not automatically translate to personal identity, for me, it informs a large part of how I experience the world because my day to day of accessing society in today’s UK is very – let me use a word we enjoy using – tricky. I am privileged in a great many ways not least of all being able to sit in this building and have the luxury to reflect – my intersectional identity does not exempt me from the reality of daily microaggressions.
Our country – I say ours because I have taken the UK as mine too, I am making home here – has enjoyed high status of being victor and conqueror over centuries. To be conqueror, someone must be conquered – we have terminology for that – slavery & colonialism. In the past it was called the great empire. But evolving away from this thinking is not something that will happen on its own. I am looking at our leaders here in the UK and wondering who will take the lead. Who will invite us to reach for our highest selves, to see that in the end we have to share the space we all inhabit?
As an immigrant, one of the most frequent and easiest phrases to tumble out of mouths used as a weapon to other me is ‘go back’. This alongside much talk elsewhere of ‘going back to the good old days’.
But there is no going back and not only because some people’s good old days were the very bad old days, made only worse now by pretending they never happened. We ignore the laws of nature by trying to go back – living means growing not staying the same.
The country’s evolution needs facilitation. I think we are in dire need of our own process of reconciliation. The arts have to lead this not only because the arts can go to places no other sector can but also because it’s a fine use of the skillsets available in the practice of humanity.
You, me and those who came before: legacy and beyond
The theme of this year’s Refugee Week is you, me and those who came before.
I am also in this building to reflect on the legacy of Refugee Week 2018. Last year, Artist and Curator Dima Karout’s participatory installation inspired visitors to the Globe to reflect on questions of belonging and boundaries. One that spoke to me, was about second chances. Many responses reflected that second chances were necessary – human even. Some said they were given when the sorry was genuine.
A question for us now is who apologises, who says sorry and for what? Can we be specific? How can we even contemplate forgiveness when there is longing for the phase before?
The other response that stood out for me on second chances said they were given when worth it.
I ask now, is our country not worth a second chance? Can we not give ourselves that?
Being in a building built on the legacy of a man, whom in my short time in the building, I hear spoken about in the way that feels personal and sometimes as if he still lives makes me think a lot about legacy. I speak both of Sam Wanamaker and Shakespeare. They do in fact both live because lovers of their creations take that legacy and evolve it to have meaning today.
Legacy can be a tricky word: often it is the ones who live after the person who built their dream who use it, who can claim it, can shape a narrative around it. The person creating at the time is just doing the work, and those who come after sometimes fall into the trap of preserving an idea of the legacy as if it is more important than the act of working to build something or even more tragically that it is more important than the people living now.
I will tell you what I am in all this for, very specifically I want the little people in my life to never hear go back. That’s the mark I want to leave. And in our country of revered buildings and statues of legacy, the mark we need to make now more than ever is the one that requires us to sweep and pave the way.
What if we choose right now, to take the good of our collective pasts, acknowledge and repair what has transpired and decide that the legacy of all of those things, is our evolution?