The YOBO Report Part 1: White back at you

It’s 5am and I’ve been up since 3 because I can’t stop thinking about being white.

I’m not trying to BE white.  I am white.  I’m trying to figure out what that means, or what it means to me anyway.

I have been trying to figure it out for the last year, ever since my wife and I pitched our idea for a new show to the Grahamstown National Arts Festival for inclusion in their 2015 Solo Theatre program.

I have never obsessed over a piece of work to the level that I took it to with this show.  I know this because I wasn’t alone.  My wife, the greatest wonder of my life, also happens to be my director and the co-creator of “YOBO: You’re Only Born Once”.  This made it very hard to leave our work at the office so to speak.  Actually, that never happened.  Not even once.  In the final two months of pre-production we agonized over every aspect, more so than with any of the other work we have produced together, because we knew that this one was going to take us to some as yet undiscovered places in our personal journeys as theatre-makers.

Iain ‘Ewok’ Robinson performs in YOBO: You’re only born once in the Thomas Pringle hall in Grahamstown on 8 July 2015; at the 2015 National Arts Festival. Robinson’s spoken word and poetic lines are used to tell the story of a solitary white South African man, discovering his position in a post-apartheid SA and realises the contemporary issues we face that link to our history. (Photo: CUEPIX/Niamh Walsh-Vorster)
Iain ‘Ewok’ Robinson performs in YOBO: You’re only born once in the Thomas Pringle hall in Grahamstown on 8 July 2015; at the 2015 National Arts Festival. Robinson’s spoken word and poetic lines are used to tell the story of a solitary white South African man, discovering his position in a post-apartheid SA and realises the contemporary issues we face that link to our history. (Photo: CUEPIX/Niamh Walsh-Vorster)

Hold on a minute.  What the fuck?  I sound like I’m trying to publish an article in a journal here.  If you want to know, we broke our intentions down like this, and critics have written about the show here, here and here. 

I’m over that though.  I’m blogging so that I can get some shit off my chest. 

Cut the kak: YOBO has forever twisted my guts into knots that are both a painful strain and a pleasure to massage away.  This show freaked me out, and I wrote the sucker.  I wanted the artistic glory of creating something that would provoke and challenge, and then to a degree it did, and I freaked out.  I realized that I wasn’t as ready to handle genuine real responsive and responsible critique as I had made myself out to be.  The show had people on their feet, both in ovation at the end AND in exiting during the performance.  I didn’t know how to handle it.  I’m still figuring it out.  That’s why I’m writing this.

I set out to script pieces that honored the work of authors and writers I had discovered in my digging the depths of WHITENESS.  Digging the depths is the wrong way to describe it actually.  Whiteness isn’t deep.  It’s on the surface.  It isn’t buried, it’s exposed, it’s evident, it’s even obvious.  So obvious that it is beyond observable and has become invisible, invisible in the way that it has manufactured itself as “normal” (making everything other than white, well, “other”).  As it turns out, this invisibility trick isn’t that clever really, because it only seems to work properly on white people.

What is clever about it is the way that it manages to hide (pause for dramatic effect) by being seen.

I met a street artist once who told me that he used to bomb bridges during peak traffic times (Bomb with paint, not bombs.  It’s a graffiti thing).  The more obvious the act the less people seemed to construe it as anything other than somehow sanctioned, or at least much harder to question.

That’s whiteness.  It’s so in your face that it is your face, so you can’t see it.  Unless you look in a mirror, but even then, it’s white like light so it reflects back into your eyes and you have to look away or it hurts.  Either that or you freeze.  Paralysis.  Oh Deer me.  Like a bright light right in your eyes, so all consuming that you can’t look away.  You can’t see anything else.  So you start to forget that anything else exists.  So you’re shocked and unsettled by the notion that anything else exists that isn’t this light.  The light is the primary focus and everything else is the periphery, or if you will, everything else is the margin.

Apparently, according to the critics, some people watched the show and had to look away, or in the case of the theatre, walk out.  I know, I heard them.  I couldn’t see them though.  The light was in my eyes.  That’s what happens when you are on stage, the centre of attention, always in focus.  You don’t see anyone else.  They’re in the blackness, you’re in the light.  You’re aware that they are there, but you can ignore them easily.

I used to do this thing in performance where in order to shake my nerves I would blur my own vision so that I didn’t focus on the audience.  I could look at them without actually seeing them.  It’s a neat trick.  It works both on and off the stage, you just keep your eyes white open.

So, the show.  It’s about how whiteness is an addiction, a comfortable habit that won’t be broken until the addict starts to suffer, to suffer enough that they are desperate to do something about it, anything to break it’s hold.  Some addicts never get to break free, they keep reaching out but all they ever get to grab onto is more net, another hook, barb-wire that cuts them back into their prison of unsustainable highs.  Whiteness is about getting high and trying to stay high.  Strangely enough, this is where whiteness stops being about race and starts to become more about a shared savage survival instinct in all animals, definitely in humans (you know the story about the Mom monkey that stands on the baby monkey to escape the heat?).  We all want to be at the top, and no one wants to be knocked down.

White people don’t see it, but we suffer from a superiority complex bred into us from centuries of imperial cultural conquest of those our ancestors deemed “other”.  We understand this, but we don’t really see it or know it, like we don’t really own it.  It’s like the difference between SAYING sorry and FEELING sorry.  I had to capitalize those words because I have decided that I can’t speak softly about this issue anymore.  White people, especially white artists, that have chosen to have this conversation need to recognize that choice as part of our privilege and I don’t think we can placate ourselves or others anymore by waiting to feel comfortable before diving into this white hole of self-reflection.

So this is me, diving in, the first part in a series of however many it takes as I keep coming white at you.

Peace be the journey, education be the destination, knowledge be the train, the track and every station.


4 thoughts on “The YOBO Report Part 1: White back at you

  1. Hi Ewok,
    Really appreciated this post. I met you a long time ago and I’m trying to remember where…
    I spoke to a fellow poet, Raymond Antrobus just yesterday and he told me of this piece. Thank you for creating it. Right now , I’m critiquing whiteness, and power and perception in the arts and Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B is the case study. I would love to connect with you and talk art, mainly, but am keen to see how you are forging this conversation forward. More power to you.

    1. Salute Zena! I wonder, did we actually meet or have our names crossed paths a few times? I definitely know of you! Have you been in South Africa? Cape Town or Joburg or Durban? Anyhow, thanks for your interest, I would love to talk with you. At the moment we are preparing to pitch the show to a theatre here in Durban for a short run next year, and should that succeed we will be developing aspects of the show based on responses in Grahamstown (as well as our own concerns) before it hits that stage. Right now I am about to spend three weeks work-shopping a new piece with Kat Francois here in Durban as part of the SA-UK Seasons 2015. It’s working title is “I to I” and it’s basically putting a Black African European Woman on stage with a White European African Man to take a poetic perspective on race and identity, how we connect, how we disconnect. Let’s talk! I hit you up on Twitter, I’m @ewokessay…

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