The Theatreguide.London Review
Poet In Da Corner
Royal Court Theatre Autumn 2018; Winter 2020
(Reviewed first in 2018 - aceoll down for
In an attempt to join new audiences, of late the Royal Court's Artistic Director Vicky Featherstone has gone out of her way to present visitors to Sloane Square with novel experiences that stray far from traditional well-made plays.
For better or worse, the latest venture on the main stage, Poet in da Corner, ticks that box in almost every way, although underlying the performance is indubitably an act of new writing, the theatre's guiding purpose.
The piece is presented under the banner of 14-18-Now WW1Centenary Art Commissions and is more specifically part of Represent, a series of artworks inspired by the Representation of the People Act 1918 intended to promote the work of young female artists interested in exploring democracy, equality and, perhaps most particularly in this case, inclusion in contemporary Britain.
On one level, the presentation is a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age drama. However, given that it was strongly influenced by Dizzee Rascal's album Boy in da Corner, perhaps it should come as no surprise that something with a writing team billed as Debris Stevenson Feat. Jammz could easily be mistaken for a lively grime night rather than a staid play.
Indeed, Ms Stevenson's story, in which the poet and teacher portrays herself, is backed by a pair of DJs who sing and dance but also take significant roles as the 75 minute tale unfolds.
The events commence in 2001 before the 11 year old Deborah had become infinitely cooler Debris or discovered that she was dyslexic.
The consequence of the latter affliction (if that is the correct term for learning dysfunction) was that while brother Tony made it to grammar school, admittedly prior to problems as result of drug dealing, little sis was condemned to not even the rather swanky local comprehensive but a sink school in another borough.
What subsequently unfolds is the tale of a sheltered young girl with a terrifying Mormon mother, who gradually finds her way into real life, significantly influenced by her first real friend SSVyper, moodily played on stage by co-writer Jammz. This pairing works well together especially when they become duelling rappers competing for verbal and intellectual supremacy.
While they impinge to a minor degree, sex and drugs and, well, grime actually, help the story to rock and roll along, at the same time entertaining an audience that in many cases might well never have heard the like.
Learning about an artist's growth as a woman and a writer is always of some interest. When it is presented like this, the evening becomes something completely different and, depending upon the willingness of viewers to do what the show's primary writer took so long to manage, letting go, it can also be great fun.
Poet in da Corner looks and sounds great, is always loud and lively, at times very moving and even laugh out loud funny. This kind of work may not appeal to every taste but anyone willing to embrace a combination of grime, physicality and biographical storytelling should definitely give it a go.
Poet In Da Corner
Royal Court Theatre January-February 2020
Dizzee Rascal's fast, angry 2003 grime album 'Boy in Da Corner' won the Mercury prize and was later to inspire Debris Stevenson to create with Jammz the performance piece 'Poet in Da Corner'.
At age 13, when she first heard the album, it spoke to the way she felt about the world in which she was dyslexic, bullied at school, lonely and frustrated with a Mormon mother (here played by Stacey Abalogun), whose reaction to her own abuse was to parade God and to 'pass your trauma till it's gone. . . pass it on.'
Debris says that until then 'reality felt unreliable'. Then some kid gave her the CD of 'Boy in Da Corner', which in turn gave her 'permission' to express herself and 'what I want to do is make a change'.
She became a grime poet and with others created the exciting 'Poet in Da Corner', an autobiographical story told in dance and importantly, the rapid syncopated dance rhythms of grime.
There are clips from Dizzee's music, where he tells us he is 'Just sittin here. I ain’t saying much. I just watch'. The landscape of the album's songs is bleak and urban, and there is an ever-present sense of physical danger.
All that is familiar to Debris and it's there in her show, but she's a white girl and that is something a black hooded figure suddenly rising from his seat in the Royal Court circle says is a problem. This is Jammz, who we soon realise is part of the performance, mostly sitting on the side, acting as a sceptic to her version of history, accusing her of 'appropriating our culture and acting innocent [while he is] tired of being a white girl's inspiring anecdote'.
'I'm a black boy. . .so many places I don't feel safe but you would invade my space. . .Don't repack my trauma'.
It is true that the beat of police hassle Dizzee experienced doesn’t run in Stevenson's piece, though the show recalls the notorious 2005 use of Asbos and Form 696 given to venues by the Met police requiring details of the ethnicity of their audience as a 'risk assessment' that helped shut down grime raves.
However, for all those of us who loved the sound of 'Boy in Da Corner' but hated the stupidity and nasty double standards of its depiction of women as oversexed 'pretty but ain't got a brain', we have something much better, something different fromDebris.
She lets us glimpse that Dizzee image of girls as the 'Jezzy' who are shamed and shunned if they show even the slightest sexual freedom so celebrated for the boys and for the Dizzee of that album. But Debris then gives us the other side of a woman's right to choose who she loves in defiance of mother, of religion and of the boys she mixes with, letting us see her own sexual awakening with 'the real Jezi, . . .hair spiralling down her back'.
This may have been the Royal Court Theatre, but
that didn't stop the audience dancing and cheering. I only wish
Dizzee Rascal had been there, to learn a few things from the poet he
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