From Windrush to Aretha: real stories shared by real women
Nyah, Birchfield Big Local, describes how the power of storytelling and performing arts has brought different women from the same community closer together.
"Our Big Local started a women’s group about three years ago. We range in age from about 20 to 60 years old. Most of us are of Caribbean heritage and one of us is Romany Gypsy.
When the Birmingham Repertory Theatre (REP) suggested working with us to start some creative performance workshops, I was initially wary of attending. I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to work with each other! But Andrew, our Community Development worker, kept mentioning the workshops to me, and I relented. These workshops were to become a cathartic, sometimes difficult but moving experience for everyone involved.
We started getting together every month, but such was the enthusiasm of the group, the workshops soon became fortnightly and then weekly.
We started to share the stories of our childhoods and adulthoods, our families, motherhood, discrimination, bravery and recovery.
We discussed ideas which are important to us and talked about women and artists who inspire us. We began writing poems and monologues and creating improvised scenes around these themes. It was fascinating to discover the common ground between us and to recognise our unique differences.
An important part of the workshops was the confidentiality Rachael, from REP, encouraged: ‘What goes on in the workshop, stays in the workshop.’
Despite how personal our stories were, we wanted to share them outside of our group, and so the idea of putting together a public performance began. We decided to call the performance ‘Our Feast’ because we felt it would be a feast of stories, a feast of ideas and a feast of experiences.
We covered many sensitive and difficult topics. One of the powerful stories shared was about how, as a seven-year-old, one of our group was put on the plane to the UK, from Jamaica, all by herself. She described how traumatised she was, and how, on arrival here, she felt when she saw signs up on the doors or walls which said: ‘No blacks, no Irish, no dogs’.
There were more incredible stories about coming from the Caribbean on the Windrush all those years ago and the hopes and dreams those people had, the school yard, the work place, motherhood and going through breast cancer.
My childhood story was one of sexual and mental health abuse and domestic violence. For my performance, I used teddy bears to represent everyone involved in this part of my life.
Some of our stories were hard to listen to but are important things to talk about, be inspired by and learn from.
We played Respect by Aretha Franklin as the performance came to a close because she is one of the artists who inspires us and this song reflects how we feel about each other because of the trust we’ve built.
After five months of writing and rehearsing, ‘Our Feast’ was a sell-out performance. Our audience included every generation, even a six month old! They told us how moving they found the stories we shared.
Is this community spirit?
Being part of these creative workshops gave me the opportunity to put all my frustrations and feelings into creative performing arts. It made me feel as though I am on top of the world, standing on the highest mountain, looking down on the troublesome world of people!
As a group we have got to know each other so much better.
We’ve reached out to each other through sharing and listening to each other’s stories.
Is this what people mean by ‘community spirit’? I think it is."