[Peeling back the layers of Aotearoa’s racial divide]
Why do you bind our potential so close to our wrists that we slit them?
In Woman of Citrus, we join Grace Bennett, a young black female raised in Aotearoa, as she grapples with racial prejudice and intolerance from the Kiwi community surrounding her. Written and performed by Toi Whakaari graduate Grace Bentley under the guidance of Director Jo Randerson, Woman of Citrus is an entertaining yet moving one-act, one-woman production which charts the experiences of a not-quite-fictional character.
Bentley stands centre stage, surrounded by a viscerally inviting space, and commands the room with a smile as audience members take their seats. White and orange cloths hang from the ceiling and the smell of citrus and spices waft from fresh-cut tree branches, creating a welcoming world far beyond the front row.
Bentley opens the performance with gusto, setting the scene via a newscaster vignette who reports that all the prized citrus fruits have gone missing from the ‘Bay of Citrus.’ What follows is an adept production during which we learn prime suspect Grace Bennett is scapegoated for the sole reason that she is not white. During the next forty minutes, powerful themes resonate with a culturally mixed audience, and continue to engage and illicit laughs thanks to Bentley’s expert use of comic timing, movement and dance.
Stand-out moments include police questioning of another teenage girl for the sole reason that she is also black and therefore must know Grace. She is sullen before she takes to the stage to perform at a public speaking competition. Given the floor to vocalise her topic of choice, she whips through school-girl gripes with the air of repeating the times table – her experiences of racism and discrimination so regular that they almost sound passé – before she hits hard with an unnerving list, an unofficial doctrine for the minority student: always be polite; work harder than others; know that when you become head-girl they will accuse you of playing the ‘race card’; know that your achievements will be reduced to nothing more than a hand-up, extended because of the colour of your skin. Despite the confronting message, our educator delivers the final words with gumption: the race card is a race, to the top – and she won.
As a non-caucasian audience member watching beside my black and ethnic minority immigrant friends, Bentley’s themes are not unfamiliar – references to black hair and the societal pressure to straighten elicit nods and finger-snap temptations – and I find myself wondering how alien yet thought-provoking the subject matter is to my Caucasian neighbour across the aisle who, at one point during a vignette on skin tone, Bentley singles out because of his ‘translucent skin.’
It was interesting to note how the energy in the room fluctuated when race was overtly debated – primarily during the use of Grace’s male Ghanaian relative, who decries political correctness and insists on using the word ‘black’ to denote skin colour. Nervousness permeated the space as viewers seemed to silently question the right to laugh – to be amused by a larger than life depiction of a man foisting controversial views about race onto a character with a polarised view.
As Bentley morphs from one scene to the next, well considered juxtapositions of pace and tone emphasize Bentley’s perspective. Moving moments of mournful interpretive dance brings her to tears as the physical release reflects the preceding half hour – long hidden words finally spoken, a voice not yet shouting but politely asking for a right to be heard.
At the end of the performance, Bentley welcomes audience members on to the stage for a ‘Ghanaian Dance Party,’ reminding us of her message of inclusion and the power of universal experiences. Awkward limbs find a rhythm as we lose ourselves in the music, in the colour and heady sensory feast we’ve had the delight to witness. My friends and I leave feeling uplifted, glad to have seen a glimpse of our lives on stage in a country which often forgets us, and congregate in the bar to discuss the experience with Grace.
It is clear Bentley’s marketing material – celebrating her powerful, black beauty – invited and enticed many people through the Basement doors for the first time. Post-show, audience members celebrated the move, and highlighted a desire to see much-needed and continued expansion to the Basement’s line-up – to become a space which not only lifts up the voices of LGBTQI creators, but ethnic minority groups long marginalised and lacking a platform to call their own.
One can only hope that the current impetus to confront ingrained and insipid racism continues and that, through collaborations like Woman of Citrus, more artists like Grace Bentley are given support to know that their stories matter and can make a difference to the lives of audience members, no matter the colour of their skin.
Woman of Citrus plays 20 April