Theatre review: Chickenshed’s ‘Blowing in the Wind’

July 29, 2020

Rosa Parks [actor Jojo Morrall] sits on an empty bus to freedom © Chickenshed Theatre

Shakira Dyer watches protest play online and asks: how many more roads must we walk down?

“Education is power, not racism.”

This was one of the quotes from Chickenshed Theatre students, shown at the start of ‘Blowing in the Wind’.

Chickenshed’s virtual play, directed by Lou Stein and first shown live in 2017, captures the turbulent timeline of global protest. Now, after the killing of George Floyd in America, its impact resonates even more.

Jojo Morall stars as the ‘spirit’ of civil rights activist Rosa Parks, travelling through time and worldwide protests, such as the suppression of the Native Americans, the racist killings of black men in 2017, and the separation caused by the Berlin Wall.

Each protest was brought to life using well-linked songs and performance, choreographed by Christine Niering along with the young performers.

Bob Dylan’s famous song ‘Blowing in the Wind’, written after he returned from Martin Luther King’s famous speech, asks: “How many roads must a man walk down / Before you call him a man?”

The powerful ‘Blood on the Streets’ rap, by Micheal Bossise, highlighted the killings of three black men

Yet the play also highlighted another, less well-known song by Dylan: ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol’.

Based on a true story, black maid, Hattie Carrol [Tania Jacobs] was killed by her young white master, William Zanzinger [Aled Williams], in a still racially segregated country. Portrayed as rich, cruel and untouchable, Zanzinger strode into the room behind the dancers, striking Hattie down.

The powerful ‘Blood on the Streets’ rap, by Micheal Bossise, highlighted the killings of three black men, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Micheal Brown. The line “and they ain’t all black, and they ain’t all white but it doesn’t mean it ain’t all right” reminded me of how many people across the world have now joined the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests.

Reading about Garner’s death, the similarities between his and Floyd’s are striking. Eleven times Garner said he could not breathe.

At the same time as Micheal Bossise sings this line, the performers split into small groups, each pretending to choke the other. When the rapper comes through the centre of their group, they split.

Even those standing at the back, one hand raised, saying nothing, can be powerful

Jump to 2020. The figure of Rosa Parks, with her 1960s green hat and gloves, walks silently through every scene – sitting with Malala, watching the Black Lives Matter protests with shock, standing with the mothers of those who died.

In a piece representing the debate around ‘Standing Rock’, traditionally Native American territory, young dancers glide across the stage as Native Americans, also misknown as ‘Indians’. Even those standing at the back, one hand raised, saying nothing, can be powerful.

What is the link to slavery and racism, and the separation to communities caused by calamities such as the Dirty War in Argentina or the Berlin Wall in Germany?

I hadn’t known that in Argentina in the 1970s around 40,000 children had been stolen from the political opponents of a military dictatorship. These children were made to become the “soldiers, their faces fixed like stone”. Their mothers’ protest at the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires was set to Sting’s ‘They Dance Alone’.

The theme of forcibly separated communities was continued with the piece ‘Castles’ about the Berlin Wall.

One actor, Will Lawrence, representing separation and prejudice, stood atop a table, while others shouted that they couldn’t get medical supplies or see their families on the other side.

The play implies the oppression of a group of people anywhere creates a mountain of problems

During the song the performers took different levels, in ‘East or ‘West’, connecting to each other as they silently smash the wall.

The play implies the oppression of a group of people anywhere creates a mountain of problems, but asks “how many years can a mountain exist” before it is washed by the sea of protest?

The perceived futility of change is evoked powerfully in the very last song, where dancers eventually lie dead on the floor, others walking over them, taking strength from those who had to suffer before them.

The hopeful strains of ‘We Shall Overcome’ intertwined with the loose questions of ‘Blowing in the Wind’.

Though seemingly differing injustices appeared to be pulled together, actually we were nudged towards understanding their connection of protest against discrimination across the world.

The young performers’ energy and support for each other was even felt through a computer screen in 2020s lockdown.

This play used the singing, movement and dancing talents of all its young people. Its meaningful songs connect to issues that are, unfortunately, still all too prevalent today.

Watch the whole play.

Read Chickenshed’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ programme.

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