Written and Performed by PAULINE MAYERS
Directed by CHRIS GOODE
The Studio, The Royal Exchange
Pauline Mayers is a Rambert Ballet trained dancer, a choreographer, a writer and a theatre maker. She is a Hackney girl who has travelled the World as a dancer. She is a women of a certain age who has lived through significant physical injuries and the emotional pain of depression. She is a performer and an experimenter and an explorer. She is a black woman who has had a mixed response from the dance world about having a black body to channel ballet through. More recently she has also experienced the closed doors that often greet an older dancer.
Talking to her in interview recently and watching her perform this evening there is an undoubted warmth and engagement with others that is striking. As she opens the show her gaze attempts to connect with each member of the audience with a white hot intensity. This will draw in many audience members but for some may prove uncomfortable to fully engage with.
What If I Told You? uses theatre, movement and dance to explore prejudice and the conscious and unconscious assumption around skin colour. The piece weaves elements of her personal history and dance experience with the story of Dr J.Marion Sims often referred to as the father of modern Gynaecology.
Dr Sims practised medicine in the nineteenth century and made major discoveries in the field of Gynaecology. His work was and remains highly controversial as he used black slave women as his subjects and refused to use anaesthetic deeming them less able to feel pain than white women.
The piece uses audience interaction and participation throughout. It is most powerful as we recreate a montage of a painting of Sims with Anarcha (a patient he experimented on many times), and two other white doctors observing while two tramatised black women peek through a curtain to see what awaits them. This is the impact of the piece that has stayed with me. Imagining that Anarcha might have been Pauline and seeing a lovely young black woman I know who could have been waiting her turn. Sims and another doctor were portrayed by white middle class men I also knew. It was deeply unsettling to imagine whose shoes we might walk in, in another place or time.
There are some very rich moments to observe and there are some lovely interactions and connections as the audience participate in the movement of the piece. There is however a frustration that in weaving these elements together so much there is a risk that the piece loses some of its impact. An hour limits some of the storytelling when we also are participants. Pauline is so engaging I wanted more of her and less of me!!
Koan is a Japanese word for public thought. It‘s the audience thinking and speaking and reflecting together. It‘s a radical act of self care and empowerment.
The Koan completes the second half of the show and is led by poet Khadijah Ibrahiim. Koan is a Japanese word for public thought. This is an important part of the piece as it is an exploration of subjective experience and a continuation of sharing what is “sameness” as opposed to “otherness”.
The genuine hope in What If I Told You? is that each of us leaves the space with a keener and more empathic perspective on our neighbours.
“There are periods of history where skin colour is used as a means to separate and disconnect us. I really feel what hurts you, hurts me. We are all human beings. There is only one race.”
This is a very personal piece. Pauline says it is an invitation to walk in her shoes for an hour. As with any subjective experience this will be more potent for some than for others. This is undoubtedly painful and chilling at times however it is also celebratory. Having stubbornly fought to be recognised as a black dancer and struggled with the loss of that career this show is also a homecoming. Theatre has welcomed her as a performer and story teller and her joy and appreciation is evident in this piece.
SHOWING 19/20 JUNE