A Chat With: mandla rae

As BlackFest 2022 gets underway in the city, we chat with writer and performer mandla rae about as british as a watermelon, mandla’s exploration of unpacking trauma and memories, and how the body keeps a score when trauma is a part of a life, which shows at Unity Theatre on Monday 26th September.

Please introduce yourself and what you do for those who may not know you or be familiar with your work

My name is mandla, I use my name in place of pronouns. I’m agender and gendered pronouns don’t exist in my first language so this feels really fitting as a way of existing. I have to use English words to talk about being queer and my lack of gender, so it feels right to try and disrupt the English language the way it’s disrupted mine.

I spell my name in lowercase because it’s not just a name – it’s the word for power in isiNdebele, my language. All that is a way of saying that I’m obsessed with words, what they mean, where they come from, why some don’t exist. I’m a writer and performer. I wrote my show as british as a watermelon, I write poetry too, I like to lurk around in live art, theatre, and performance spaces.

I write about race, religion, trauma, power, being an immigrant in lots of different ways…all the fun stuff!

How did you come to be involved with BlackFest and why do you think the platform is so important?

I first got involved in BlackFest in a panel I did a few years ago with the festival with some queer Liverpool icons, Felix Mufti-Wright, Iesha Palmer and Kiwi. We talked about queerness and race. I’m always amazed when people want to pay me to speak without a pre-prepared speech.

I’m really thankful for grassroots organisations like BlackFest, working as an artist who isn’t white it can be few and far between to be in communities or performance spaces where you’re not a Black face in a mostly white programme or line-up. I love that I get to be an artist so I’m not complaining but sometimes you can feel like a token and with BlackFest there isn’t so much of that.

You are performing as british as a watermelon as part of the festival. What was the inspiration behind this work and what can your audience expect?

To participate, not just witness. I describe it as a messy sensory experience, it’s not a play but it does happen in theatres so if you expect a play there might be some disappointment. There’s not much of a beginning, middle and end but there is a story and many a sensation.

There’s also lot of humour in trying to unpack tough experiences. It’s about memories and how the body keeps a score when trauma is a part of a life. The watermelons can be anything, a body, a mind, a child, an adult, a memory, the body of Christ, anything…It’s about being foreign, moving, it’s very up and down and I guess, trying to rebuild who we are by remembering where we came from.

Audio effects and other stimuli are described as incredibly important to your performance, what impact do you want this to have on people?

ASMR – Autonomic sensory meridian response – it can be a positive or a negative reaction to a sound, which I think matches the show. It’s not a very ‘fun’ experience but it does have some funny moments, the sound design by Xana is hypnotic.

One of the ways trauma affects me is a heightened sensitivity towards certain sounds, a neighbour hammering something can completely change my physiology. There’s a banging knock sound effect that took me a long time to get used to, it feels so real and I hate it.

Healing from trauma means connecting to and losing our senses in ways that feel safe to us and the audio used in the show is intended to either soothe or connect with the darkness in the stories.

The voice recordings were decisions I made based on what feels like mandla from the past speaking and help me to disconnect from the feelings of the show. There’s more than oneself taking up space. Using different voices is interesting to me, switching tone is integral to performance right but that’s something that also happens when you’re traumatised, with less control.

What message do you want people to take away from your work?

Childhood trauma and neglect leads to a high number of adulthood mental illness and addiction. That’s a really harrowing fact, I read it in The Body Keeps the Score. The two are heavily connected yet there’s no telling when the cause will be eradicated from our societies.

Children are not able to protect themselves from harm, they don’t have the power or often the ability to understand what’s happening to them. When abuse is such an early imprint, how can you even know it’s abuse? I had to have a teacher explain to me that not everyone gets hit when they do something wrong. So, I’d like people to just be kinder to children.

There’s also a lot in the show about scars and marks, what kind of marks or memories do we leave each other with?

How we treat each other is so important, I don’t think people look at me and consider that I’ve had so much trauma. I don’t want them to pity me, I want them to be kind though. We often don’t know most people’s traumas; kindness shouldn’t come just because you know what a difficult past someone’s had either!

Apart from performing yourself, what other events are you looking forward to at BlackFest?

Akeim Toussaint-Buck’s film Displaced is screening at FACT and I’m really excited to watch that, I was inspired by his show Windows of Displacement years ago.

I’m also looking forward to the spoken word night at Hope Street theatre! I didn’t go to drama school; I’m constantly learning and growing as a performer, and I started out at open mic nights, so I love to be in those spaces with fellow word lovers!

What other projects are you working on now and how can people discover more of your work?

I’ve just started a brilliant project called Covid Song Cycle, with Contact Theatre and composer Michael Betteridge and three fellow poets and choirs from across the north west. I’ll be writing a song for a newly formed queer and trans choir to sing! Some of my happiest childhood memories are singing songs with the choir in primary school and in church so this is a really special project.

Book now to see as british as a watermelon on Monday 26th September 2022 at Liverpool’s Unity Theatre, as part of BlackFest 2022.

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