Body Politic’s latest production, Father Figurine, unites hip hop dance theatre and spoken word to powerful effect when exploring the fractured relationship between a father and his son. Our arts contributor, Shirley Ahura, writes an extended review of this vital, poignant piece.
Figure – the appearance or symbol of something; a shape or form seen either from a distance or unclearly
Father figure – an older man who is respected for his paternal qualities and may be an emotional substitute for a father; someone with whom one can identify on a deeply psychological level and who generates emotions generally felt towards one’s father.
Figurine – A statuette, especially one of human form; a small ornamental model of a person.
Father Figurine presents a powerful testimonial of men’s mental health, explored through the lens of a fractured father-son relationship. The choice to foreground the familial is an interesting and perhaps intuitive one. For many of us the family is the cornerstone of our very selves; the foundation on which we are built as individuals, and by which we are collectively brought into the world. Yet for so many others, the family remains a complex site of trauma and pain. Repressive in nature, early traumatic experiences often go unaddressed for years, lifetimes and in some cases, whole generations. Much like a physical illness going untreated, the after-effects of this trauma don’t present themselves until much later on in life, where more drastic measures must be taken to deal with its fallout.
Father Figurine, on closer inspection, is this story. The story of a stoic single father swimming desperately against the tide of depression. An inquisitive but introverted young son riddled with anxiety. Their inability to deal healthily with a traumatic family event and the utter fragmentation of the world as they know it. The themes explored are rich and multi-layered, interrogating conceptions of vulnerability, masculinity and fatherhood, whilst bringing to the fore wider questions surrounding intergenerational conflict, connectivity and collective healing. The storytelling is both powerful and evocative, combining emotive hip hop dance with poignant spoken word poetry to portray with dramaturgical precision lived experiences that for many watching may not be so far removed from their own. Father Figurine serves in this way as a vitally important work in the current climate of mental health awareness, as well as a promising overture to more open and honest dialogue(s) about emotional wellbeing amongst men and young boys.
From the outset, the audience is presented with the semblance of a strong family unit. In the opening scenes of Father Figurine, we are transported to a state of familial euphoria. Father (Tyrone Isaac-Stuart) and son (Isaac Ouro-Gnao) are engaged in a playful game of catch – the stage is flooded with warm light, the music is cheerful and upbeat, their movement carefree and effervescent. They perform household chores with little interruption or disturbance to their routine. Somewhere in this gleaming family portrait however, a crack – tenuous and imperceptible – is forming. Dialogue (or the lack thereof) is a particularly pertinent device used in Father Figurine. The father steals furtive glances at his son, unable to articulate that which weighs on his mind. Likewise, the son tentatively attempts to break the silence, these efforts for the most part going unnoticed by his oblivious father. When conversation does occur, it is short and stilted:
Dad: “How was school?”
The father is quite simply out of touch. He tries to overcompensate for this widening breach in their relationship by moralising in well-intentioned, yet empty phrases “Nothing worth having is easy. You must work hard”. After a particularly spiritless dinner, the father excuses himself wordlessly from the table. When the son offers a timid “Bye Dad”, this is met with a small semblance of a wave thrown over the father’s retreating form – a hollow gesture devoid of any eye or physical contact. This marks one moment of many throughout the course of the piece’s denouement in which things are left unspoken, questions remain unanswered and emotional exchange is visibly stifled.
This rupture in the family figure takes centre stage during one of Father Figurine’s most powerful moments: the dreams and nightmares sequence. As father and son fall into deeply disturbed fits of sleep, we see not only the toll that emotional repression takes on the psyche, but also how this repression manifests through the body. Through an expertly choreographed scene, both father and son undergo equally gruelling psychological ordeals. As they battle against a tide of unnamed inner demons, they writhe in agony, articulating more so with their bodies than with their voices a silent pain that is almost unsettling to watch. The music intensifies, the lighting becomes climactic, and the staging takes on a frightening polarity. Very little separates father and son beyond the four walls that confine them. Despite their proximity, both father and son appear as mirror opposites wholly consumed in their respective struggles, and thus completely unaware of each other’s plight. They appear as two proverbial ships passing in the night, chartered in their destination towards the same tumultuous waters.
In the morning, the banality of their routine only deepens the cracks in the family façade. Recovering from the remnants of their rough night, neither father nor son make any eye contact. Physical contact is strictly forbidden. Communication is brought to a complete standstill:
Son: “Did you sleep OK?”
The dinner table, once the centrepiece of the ‘happy family’ par excellence, is now a site of control. They fold napkins and set the table in a now well-rehearsed sequence – a final futile attempt to render the family portrait free of imperfection. On first glance, they fail to articulate what they both actively choose to negate. On closer inspection, however, this silence is more than a simple disavowal to speak. What they fundamentally lack is the lexicon needed to put words to thought and feeling, the emotional vocabulary to express and define themselves by extension. From the outset, the very survival of the father-son stronghold on which Father Figurine is premised is threatened; the euphoria of the opening scenes now nothing more than a distant memory presently fading in its wake.
The parent as protector and provider is a recognisable trope that the father figure, on first glance, appears to have all the makings of. His on-stage presence is almost solely expressed through the physical; the strength he possesses appears to emanate from the body rather than the mind. What’s more, his life appears to revolve unceasingly around the confines of Work/Home. For him, there is little room for anything outside of these two spheres. When the son begins an effusive discussion about his new-found interest in the arts, the father curbs this curiosity with a gruff and almost mechanical rebuttal: “Maths is what you’ll need to succeed in life”.
Beneath the steely reserve, a much more layered character development takes root. The father’s hard exterior is tempered by moments of extreme vulnerability – once alone in his room, he listens nostalgically to West African highlife music. He dances slowly and deliberately, and with every move drifts back to the sunken cornerstones of the past. Unbound by the strictures of fatherhood he has maintained up until this point, this almost illicit insight into his most intimate moments serves to humanise him. This joy is more ephemeral than evergreen nevertheless, and as quickly as the music is switched on, the father switches it off. We are transported back to reality; back to the silence. In these solitary scenes, the father’s internal conflict is exteriorised through excerpts from real-life interviews that play in the background:
“You’re supposed to be the rock”
“The sisters are meant to cry, not the brothers”
Further compounding this is an internal discord involving two further pillars of the father’s universe: culture and identity. In what seems to be almost an afterthought, he cautions his son to remember the following mantra: “Who you are, what you are…where you came from and what’s going to be your future.” Whilst this outburst goes uninterrogated for the most part, it throws up yet again another line of enquiry into the father’s complexity. Ultimately, he is crushed by everything he believes a man should be – and by extension, everything he believes a father should be. To quote Fanon, the cause is in this way the consequence. You are a good father because you are a man; you are a man because you are a good father. At the mercy of his own dogma, he represses and suppresses, revoking his own ability to be emotionally present for his son. The result is a stoicism that rises to Okonkwo levels, resurrecting Chinua Achebe’s hapless antihero straight from the pages of Things Fall Apart and hinting at an equally ill-fated end.
Unlike his father, the son appears to be much more liberated. He is timid; fidgeting nervously with pinched fingers, this idiosyncratic quirk gives him away at various junctures of the piece, as much as he is curious about the world and what it offers. He enjoys the freedom and creativity of the arts, standing in sharp contrast against his father’s appeals to self-restraint and discipline.
Particularly poignant is the son’s interest in method acting. He expresses to his father a desire to “walk, talk…feel like you to understand you.” This desire stems from a need to not only replicate but to also enact; to make his father – the behaviours he exhibits, the attributes he possesses – wholly transparent to him so that he too may understand how to exteriorise the roles of ‘boy’, ‘man’ and ‘son’. He seeks full emotional identification with his father rather than the abridged version that has been handed to him. The father is for him both an object of study and influence on a personal level and an idealized ‘imago’ of the parent on the subconscious one. In this way, the son fulfils a unique character arc as both the antithesis of, and microscopic lens into the father – a figurine within an even emptier figure.
Importantly, the son is extremely perceptive. He contemplates the deterioration of his relationship with his father in a series of short, pensive monologues:
“Dinner…a passive ritual. He never passes the salt. His silence seasons my dish.”
“Pain is best kept in the shadows”
It is through this eloquent and visceral prose that the final piece of this family puzzle is disclosed – the absence of the mother. The third napkin on the dinner table, unclaimed and unaccounted for until now, is brought sharply into focus.
In an impassioned finale, we see the residual trauma of the mother’s absence play out. For the first time in this 70-minute-long piece the son broaches the subject with his father, an act that generates an outpouring of emotions that threaten to engulf them both. An impressive choreographic break is performed to a pulsating score, with the dinner table positioned as a stage divider between the two. A split role reversal then sees son cradling father, their shared fragility and innermost vulnerabilities laid bare in a heart-rending image for all to see. Not long after however, the scene undergoes a perverse permutation: the son’s arms wrapped protectively around the father’s broken body, once a source of refuge and reprieve for the latter now become a form of asphyxiation. He becomes restless, resistant. His despair is tangible as he soliloquises an immutable fact: a man “caged behind locked bars”, he remains locked in the “path of history” hoping in vain for this history to “rewrite” him. Interspersed throughout are the earlier interview excerpts played in the father’s solitary scenes. The air becomes thick with voices and tones, overlapping Father Figurine’s metanarrative as concentric circles layer a central point. The effect is akin to a sort of sonic claustrophobia that further compounds the high intensity of the scene.
The chasm between father and son culminates in a shock display of violence, as the latter begs the former to acknowledge their shared loss. Provoked by this onslaught of distressed pleas, the father reaches breaking point – instantly but unthinkingly, he grabs his son by the neck, slamming him violently onto the dinner table with a force that rips through the white noise and cloaks the room in deadly silence. Just before the scene blacks out a dial tone is heard, followed by the father’s beleaguered voice, coming from a point in the seemingly near future:
‘Hello…I need help”.
In Father Figurine, abandonment, guilt, loss, blame, self-doubt and shame constitute the staples on which the men in the piece are raised. Conversely, they are inevitably the very things that almost destroy them. Why Father Figurine remains a tour-de-force has as much to do with the creative vision and artistic direction of its amply talented cast and contributors as it does its powerful closing message: that a cry for help can indeed be a catalyst for healing.
Father Figurine was performed at Stratford Circus on 20th March and will be touring Bristol (The Wardrobe Theatre, 13th & 14th Sept), Luton (The Hat Factory, 20th Sept), Oxford (The Old Fire Station, 13th Oct), London (RedBridge Drama Centre, 15th Oct) and Norwich (Norwich Playhouse (Stage Two), 18th Oct) this autumn 2019. Click the links for more information about Father Figurine and Body Politic.
About Body Politic
Founded in 2012, Body Politic is a not-for-profit hip hop theatre company who are committed to addressing the growing prevalence of mental health issues in young people. We provide a nurturing, enriching and supportive environment which works with young people from all backgrounds and ages to improve self-confidence and self-esteem through dance. Learn more about the excellent work that Body Politic are doing and find out more about their future productions and classes here.