Performer, artist and inaugural winner of the Eclipse Award discusses the two challenging shows she's bringing to Edinburgh
The Fringe might seem like it's already teeming with awards, but 2019 welcomes a new prize that's urgently needed. With BAME artists criminally under-represented at the festival, the inaugural Eclipse Award – co-presented by Summerhall and Sheffield's Eclipse Theatre – is taking steps to address this deficit, and its first winner is acclaimed black, queer theatre-maker and live artist, Rachael Young.
It's not Young's first time at the Fringe; in 2017, she was at Summerhall for a week with Out, a heavily physical dance-based duet examining identity, black bodies, homophobia and transphobia. The show connected so strongly with its audience, it inspired a podcast. 'I feel like existing in the world sometimes is just labour intensive,' she laughs, speaking over the phone ahead of her trip up to Edinburgh in August. 'It's having lots of difficult conversations, or absorbing the way the world sees you and trying to push back against that. It was important [in Out] that we try to dismantle ideas of gender, beauty and all these things.'
Thanks to the Eclipse Award and the £10,000 of financial assistance it provides, Young will bring Out back to Summerhall in the second half of August, performing alongside live artist and choreographer marikiscrycry. But for the first 12 days of the festival, she'll be performing Nightclubbing, a critically acclaimed piece of work inspired by the true story of four black women being refused entry to a nightclub in London in 2015.
Out / credit: Marcus Hessenberg
'I identify as a dark-skinned person,' she says, 'and I'm from Nottingham – which is important in this context because that kind of thing, I expect to happen in Nottingham. But whenever I've lived in London – maybe it was misguided but I always felt like you could be whoever you wanted to be. When you're black and brown, you're made to feel othered from a very young age, and I just felt like on a night out, trying to get into a club, it's just not ok. I wanted to explore that.'
The result of that exploration encompasses music, movement, Afro-futurism and the inimitable Grace Jones, whose 1982 album gives its name to the show. 'I was looking for a black, dark-skinned woman who was a role model,' Young explains, 'someone who wasn't looking to uphold Western ideas of beauty and who was also looking to be authentically herself, and the only person that I could think of was Grace Jones. From a queer standpoint, I like how she mixes androgyny and femininity and masculinity, all of those things into one, but is hugely beautiful. When you look around at the artists we have now, you see how she really paved the way for some of them.'
'When she was around,' she adds, 'she didn't really have many allies, she was going for it on her own. There's an idea that if you're going to be othered anyway, then you may as well stand out. There's something in that – if you've always been invisible, then how do you make yourself really fucking visible so that no one is going to miss you? And that feels political in some ways. All of these things just kind of meshed together.'
'Meshing together' is what makes Young's work so alluring. After performing with the Nottingham Playhouse in college, she trained at Manchester's Arden School of Theatre. But it was only on returning to Nottingham and working for the New Art Exchange – the largest centre for BAME arts outside of London – that she started moving towards live art and experimental performance. 'I like to keep my practice open,' she says. 'I'm writing at the moment, but I've done installations, dance-based performances – Nightclubbing, for instance, is movement and music, but definitely not musical theatre. It's creating a visual landscape as well. Maybe that's something to do with the fluidity of our identities – if you're always evolving, it makes sense that your practice is as well.'
credit: Marcus Hessenberg
And at their heart, both Out and Nightclubbing are essentially about black and brown voices being seen, heard and recognised. Young says, 'The work that I create has always been about marginalised people and giving voice. It's about validating an existence that hasn't been validated. I can remember being at school, and every time I had anything to say that was race-related, I was told I had a chip on my shoulder. I've literally heard it so many times. It invalidates your experience – it says that you are complaining and what you feel doesn't matter. Of course it matters, it shapes who we are – we carry all of those things we've been told as a child into adulthood, and we spend a lot of time unlearning all of those negative things that have been told to us over time.
'So that's why the work exists. For some people, it's going to really fucking land and connect. And it's going to land because when they look at the stage, they're going to see people that look like them and that's hugely important. For some people, they're going to come into the space and they're going to feel uncomfortable. And that's ok also, as long as that uncomfortability helps them to shift the way they view the world, and think about how maybe they can do things better.'
'There's this moment in Nightclubbing,' Young explains, 'where I flip the world inside out. It's black and then it turns gold. And it's like shining a mirror back on everyone – have a look at yourself, how can you help to make things better? Are you going to put yourself out or stand up for something even if it doesn't directly affect you? If you're saying you're an activist, then that's what it's about because some of us can't decide to pick and choose when to fight, we have to do it all the time.' She laughs momentarily. 'It's about all of that really.'
Rachael Young and her badass band of superhumans embrace Afrofuturism and the cult of Grace Jones in Nightclubbing; an explosive performance bringing visceral live music and intergalactic visions to start a revolution. 1981: Grace Jones releases her landmark album Nightclubbing; her body is brown and…
Performed with marikiscrycrycry, originally created/performed with Dwayne Antony, Out is about shapeshifting in a bid to fit in; to be black enough, straight enough, Jamaican enough… Challenging homophobia and transphobia within our communities, Out is a conversation between two bodies; a live art/dance…