During Harewood’s shocking performance The Privileged I found myself acutely aware of the predominately white, middle-class theatre-going audience, in contrast to the single black artist. As Lyn Gardner discusses in her article for The Guardian, Should Immersive Theatre Audiences Accept Greater Responsibility, the performance “is authored and owned by the young black artist who made it.” Harewood is the “charismatic leader” and the audience has become the primitive who have “lost their will and submitted to the will of the charismatic leader.” Through this process of social obedience, Harewood manages to reverse the social normal that is ingrained throughout our westernised society that anyone who isn’t white, male, and straight becomes the othered body – the primitive one.
By making the audience the othered body and hence so aware of their whiteness, Harewood gives the audience the realisation of “how it feels to occupy a position” he has felt throughout his life. Audre Lorde discusses her childhood as a young black woman in Sister Outsider (1984) how “it was a lie nobody else noticed color,” (p.149) and how the denial of this acknowledgment was more poisonous with her mother’s silences teaching her “isolation, fury, mistrust, self-rejection and sadness.” (p.149). Orville Lloyd Douglass discusses his experiences of being a black man in The Observer article Why I Hate Being a Black Man: “A lot of the time I feel like my skin colour is like my personal prison, something that I have no control over, for I am judged because of the way I look.” Arguably Harewood makes the audience so aware of their whiteness because, in the westernised version of normality that we live in, being white is never usually something to be noticed. It is only with this realisation that the majority of the audience is able to occupy, even if momentarily, the position that has been put on Harewood though out his life.
However, when the performance ends and the audience leaves the studio the majority, unlike Harewood, are able to rid themselves of this uncomfortable position that is challenging, uneasy, and alien to the white majority. For most, they do not have to live a life as the othered body where they must learn “to be at home with cruelty.”1 In The Privileged, the artist recreates his own personal prison for the audience and himself both physically with the cage-like formation of the chairs and also emotionally. As the audience, we feel as if we have no control over the situation with our desperation for the show to end and the realisation that we have to go through the motions of the instructions for it to be done with. In many ways, these instructions become representative of the westernised rules that silently guide our lives. Throughout the performance, Harewood gradually puts the audience in the emotionally straining position of the othered body.
When first leaving The Privileged it was difficult to think past my initial anger and shock at what I had experienced but as Jennifer Doyle discusses in Hold it Against Me (2013): “attention to a works controversy actually suppresses attention to a work’s difficulty.” (p.20) The Privileged has been performed multiple times and with each performance the audience’s reactions vary, some audience members have left or spoken out. Some have broken down in tears.
Harewood leads us to recognise the animal within ourselves. As Angela Carter observed in the Bloody Chamber (1993) that many of us are “hairy on the inside.”(p.68) Indeed his own animal costume could be seen as a forewarning. By reducing us to our instinctive responses Harewood challenges the social conditioning that is ingrained throughout our western society of the othered body being primitive. Harewood lays us a trap that could also be seen as a potential liberation. For the duration of the performance everyone in the room is caged but by being there becomes potentially freed from our traditional social conditioning. For a brief hour, we have the possibility of understanding what it might feel like to live in another skin.
What I found most affecting about Harewood’s performance was how it stayed with me. It was only when leaving the room that I was able to look past my initial feelings of anger and shock and I could begin to consider the reasoning of my own actions and of the others I had shared the experience with. The fitting title of the performance The Privileged leads the audience to not only question their own privilege but to also question what privilege is. The Privileged is a challenging piece of work because it makes the audience consider and question their own bodily instincts and through doing this question our own social conditioning.
1 p.146, Lorde, Audre, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Crossing Press, 1984. [print]
Image: Jamal Harewood, ‘The Privileged’, SPILL Festival of Performance 2014, photo by Guido Mencari