An abridged version of this appeared in Theatre Full Stop, 18 January 2020.
On 11 December, I watched Akeim Toussaint perform his solo show “Windows of Displacement” at Stratford Circus, which returns to London in March. It is a transfixing hour of spoken word, song, and dance. He first presents us with history and today, drawn with his arms as two separate entities, and poses the question: What differentiates past from present if sentiments and power structures remain unchanged?
History is frequently described as cyclical: there’s peace and war, the economy booms and busts. Toussaint deftly sets out a straight, unwavering line from the misnamed “history” of explicit, on-the-ground colonialism and slavery to the racism still embedded in contemporary capitalist institutions. He does so with a narrative centred around his family’s global movement: his ancestors first as victims of the UK’s slave trade to Jamaica from west Africa, then to England in Toussaint’s adolescence in hopes of better opportunities away from the deprivations of colonial exploitation: “We moved to England because England moved we.”
The line is straight and true but covers a breadth of history and physical space across the globe to illustrate the myriad ways in which “post-colonial” is a misnomer. Jamaica, like other colonies, was forced to send all export profits back to the United Kingdom, yet is still denied use of the pound, a much stronger currency than the Jamaican dollar. The International Monetary Fund, in response to Jamaica’s $2 trillion debt, further subjugated its economy by imposing brutal austerity measures, keeping the people whose labour continues to enrich Britain in poverty (for more on this I recommend Tony Norfield’s blog Economics of Imperialism, or his book The City). Jamaican soldiers fought on behalf of their oppressors in both world wars but were segregated and denied recognition. By the time Toussaint gets to describing the bureaucratic humiliations UK residents from the colonies must pay for when applying for citizenship, the line has been drawn so clearly you could reach out and break it.
Toussaint frequently provides his own percussion and dynamically shifts shapes across the stage, but it is with his upper body he furnishes the story and moves the narrative. A recurring stance is a crouch, rifle at the ready parallel over an extended leg, as a rebel fighting the British army, a Jamaican conscripted to fight in World War 2, a brutalised child in the Congo trapped in the barbarism of mining minerals for smartphones. His movements are uncannily evocative, and a monologue about slavery is introduced with unmistakable motions that forewarn the audience of what’s to come.
This is some heavy shit he’s covering, but throughout the show Toussaint warmly and directly engages the audience, imbuing it with joy. I didn’t know singing was a part of the show when I bought my ticket, and so was delightfully surprised to hear a deep, versatile voice breaking the silence when the stage lights came on. Of several Jamaican songs reprised, he involved the audience in a call and answer chorus. The audience was generously represented by what I assume were Jamaicans and other Caribbeans who knew the words. During a happy, interactive segment, Toussaint beatboxes as we use our smartphones in an act of good neighbourship. It could have felt like a gimmick, but Toussaint’s openness and equanimity convinced this ornery cynic of social media to participate.
His closing message was to be “a mother to another in need” in the face of hideous, dehumanising capitalism. In an appeal that gave me chills like Lizzo’s on the night of Trump’s first (and god willing only) election, two days before Boris Johnson’s sixth election to power, Toussaint urged us to be kind to each other because of, not despite, our differences. Small acts of neighbourly activism lead to big acts of radical activism, binding the inordinately stronger 99% against the 1% ruling class.