Alia Butt reviews The Canary and The Crow, on at the Arcola Theatre until 8 February
Racism is back from the dead. Except it never really died, it was just in stealth mode. Nowadays, we watch on horrified, as discussions about what constitutes as racism drag us through the mud, leaving us all feeling filthy. The media outcry around Prince Harry and Meghan’s departure from their Royal duties for example, raising once again the question of whether we live in a racist society.
The conversation itself seems to be getting more difficult, more convoluted. The matter of privilege, to many of us, seems obvious and important to discuss. But when paired with adjectives such as ‘male’ or ‘white’ it suddenly becomes impossible for people to hear, kicking off furious rows, with the actor-musician Laurence Fox’s outbursts being the most recent example. So how do we talk about these uncomfortable issues?
Last night I went to see a play, as I often do, yet my experience felt very different. Not so much because of the audience demographic; I’ve recently managed to join a theatre audience a few times and not stick out like a sore, frizzy, brown thumb. It was due to being encouraged to truly react. I laughed loudly and generously, and clapped and bopped, and it was glorious! Moreover, as I mostly teetered on the edge of my seat, I was genuinely captivated by the young black truth that unravelled centre stage.
The Canary and The Crow follows ‘The Bird’. A working-class boy, who managed to get a scholarship to a private school, where he was one of the only two black children in his year. Written and narrated by Daniel Ward, the story really begins when we witness Bird first experience what it is to be ‘other’d’. This is an experience many of us know we have had, but often find it difficult to describe, or even truly acknowledge. Bird struggles between identities. On one hand, he was the ‘yout from the ends’, who would hang with his boys in the park every day. On the other, he was the black boy surrounded by posh white kids, and soon found he never truly belonged, anywhere. We see Bird experience himself in many identities, thrust upon him without consent: the angry black man, the scary black man, the acceptable black man, etc.
Despite these difficult themes, the play itself is funny, feel-good and energetic. It incorporates hip hop and classical music throughout portraying the value of making connections and transcending the norm to create beautiful new levels of experience.
Ultimately, Ward encourages us to use art to communicate better. When words fall short, or feel too brash, create art and enlighten those around you, who are listening, but struggle to hear what you have to say. He sensitively highlights how the wrongdoings of one person from a minority group, are used to prop up a xenophobic narrative; how ambition without opportunity kills people who refuse to accept that they do not deserve the same as their privileged counterpart; how delicate differences between us are used to destroy lives; and how we all fit into this picture, on one side of the cage or the other.
'The Canary and the Crow' is on at the Arcola Theatre until 8th February 2020. Don't miss it.