Drawing from real life accounts of young Black men living in Britain today, Joseph Toonga’s Born to Manifest explores issues of identity and Black masculinity, but for our writer Shirley Ahura this is only the beginning of a very important conversation.
After watching Joseph Toonga’s Born to Manifest, there is a lingering sense that somehow, somewhere, the dust is far from settled. This sense is, in part, due to the fact that the piece is itself an excavation: of what it is to be a Black man existing within a world order that insists on holding that very existence in a vice-like grip. Of how it feels to have intimate knowledge of that which has been pre-determined by others violently inscribed into your skin. Of what it means to come into the world already precarious and, in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ words, endangered. In his incisive inquest into the continued and systematic endangerment of Black lives outlined in Between the World and Me, Coates writes: “racism is a visceral experience […] it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.” So too does Born to Manifest ground itself in the different manifestations of this violence meted out on the Black body. Drawing breath from real life accounts of young Black men living in contemporary Britain, Joseph Toonga and Theo ‘Godson’ Oloyade relay some of the most unsettling iterations of this lived experience, doing so with an unflinching rawness from which there is, ultimately, no going back.
As the title suggests, neither Toonga nor Godson shy away from the perceived truths that shroud them both as Black men specifically, and Black people historically. As aggressors. As trespassors. As targets. As outside the boundary of what is human. As the embodiment of the boundary itself, the negative space. Non-existent, yet hyper-visible. Dehumanised. Demonised. Guilty. Hunted. Rather, the duo bring the very tropes that have been both implicitly and unequivocally assigned to Black people – almost always with mortally damaging and damning consequences – quite forcibly to the forefront. The purpose perhaps is not so much to unsettle the viewer, but rather for the viewer to get the sense that they too must inhabit this unsettled space – in as much as such a positioning is possible for those who have never found themselves there in the first place. To be racialised / gendered / queered / minoritised / othered is to occupy a constant space of unsettlement. Presenting this within the confines of a one-hour dance performance and public showing is far from an easy feat – by the end, both Toonga and Godson are spent, both physically and emotionally.
Throughout Born to Manifest, the onus to self-interrogate is placed on the part of the viewer-voyeur. Time and again, more is said about us as silent actors in the piece than is ever revealed about the subject(s) on stage deployed for our study and scrutiny. Toonga stands solitary on stage, his stark white shirt eerily luminous against a backdrop completely starved of light. His back is turned to the audience, and he remains in this position that both eludes and evades our gaze long enough for the curiosity in the air to crispen. Time passes slowly in this way, with a solely blacked-out stage, Toonga, and our thoughts to cut through it. Thus, Born to Manifest becomes a series of reflections – of the self, the projection, and the gaze. The projection of one’s self through the gaze of others. Laid bare as such, the mirror effect is more introspective than affective. The tone is thus established from the outset. More is said about ourselves than is ever said about the subject(s) deployed on stage for our study and scrutiny.
What place does one’s discomfort come from on seeing Toonga emulate the sounds and mannerisms of primates? Is it the fact of this presentation that disturbs the psyche? Or is it the re-presentation that confirms certain ideas and associations that lay dormant underneath the surface?
Furthermore, does Godson’s rage render it impossible to bear witness to his vulnerability? In Born To Manifest, Black masculinit(ies) – as well as the preconceptions that surround, implicate and asphyxiate them – are very much on trial. Explored skilfully through a second mirroring effect, both Toonga and Godson become reflections of one another. Theirs is a dance vocabulary consisting of various exchanges, transferrals and returns of energy. They remain engaged in rich choreographic dialogue throughout – one that generates intense bouts of struggle and pain but is capable of displaying love and mutual salvation.
However, it is also within this problematising of Black masculinities that the piece falls tragically short. In several scenes, the ‘Hands Up Don’t Shoot’ gesture is used consistently to convey the traumas of police brutality, most notably witnessed in America in recent years. In addition, hands are repeatedly twisted behind backs, bringing to mind the precarious position Black men inhabit as lynchpins in America’s vast prison-industrial complex – a socio-historical phenomenon that has been denounced and critiqued extensively by Black queer feminist activists from Angela Davis to Patrisse Khan-Cullors. Whilst easily identifiable however, does a story that is recognisable and to some degree relatable make it ours? Can we lay claim to that which is not, for all intents and purposes, our specific, material experience?
Mass incarceration, surveillance and police brutality are concepts that are far from novel to Britain. The conversation around the legacies of the British Empire and resulting ways in which racism manifests in the UK is very much one that lives and breathes as I write this review. For me, it seems to do a sad disservice not only to the conversation itself, but to the Black people in this country who have contributed to it, as well as those who continue to ensure it is not silenced, but recognised. Acknowledged. Built upon. Born to Manifest in this way misses a crucial opportunity – to advocate on behalf of Black narratives that are already so neglected, marginalised and left unaccounted for in our society. One that has no other recourse but to fight on a daily basis in clinical London boardrooms with committees, editors and production teams to be told – and told truthfully, with nuance and authenticity.
Scholar-activist Saidiya Hartmann once asked: “What are the stories one tells in dark times? How can a narrative of defeat enable a place for the living or envision an alternative future?” Choosing to define oneself outside of the subject-object distinction (outside of the whoops of primates and the barrel of a police officer’s gun), even just for a second, can therefore be a radical and revolutionary act. It opens us all up to the potential to dig deeper – to look more introspectively without running the risk of cooptation and inauthenticity – in order to pursue something more than what the white gaze can offer. Born to Manifest succeeds in doing away with all well-intentioned attempts to tread lightly through its contents, and instead promises a psychological shakedown of the viewer-intruder in its discovery. To truly pursue a liberational politics however – that is to say, something that begins to look like self-determination, self-governance and autonomy over one’s body, mind, and most importantly, narrative – the piece has scratched the surface, but still has some way to go in refusing the dust to sediment, and instead shaking it up once and for all.
- Feature Image Theo ‘Godson’ Oloyade and Joseph Toonga in Born to Manifest. Image by Camilla Greenwell.
- Born to Manifest and Joseph Toonga Promo Image by The Other Richard.