#negrophobia is a searing, multimedia exploration of attitudes towards black male bodies. The production defies categorisation, blending poetry, dance and drama with live video footage.
As you enter the Tramway studio, magazine pages lie torn and scattered across the floor along with the Order of Service celebrating the life of Abdul Jamaal Muhammad. Some of the audience sit on pillows on stage, next to a coffin draped with the American flag. Projected onto the back wall we see the blurred opening page of ‘On Being White and Other Lies’ by James Baldwin. Newsreels depicting police brutality play silently on another wall. The room throbs with grainy trance over a thick pulsing beat.
Performance artist IMMA/MESS (or IMMA) struts across the stage in a thong leotard, movements a blur of catwalk, dance and erotic contortion. IMMA doesn’t speak throughout the entire night. Instead, IMMA films themselves, the audience and Jaamil Olawale Kosoko on a mobile phone. The footage plays on the back wall, turning the gaze of the audience back on itself. As IMMA films the mostly white audience, Kosoko chants ‘symbolic sexualised cannibalism’. This performance deftly critiques the surveillance of black and queer bodies by the (predominantly) white gaze, a gaze that perpetually consumes images of these silenced bodies through the media.
Kosoko embodies and subverts different tropes of blackness: a sportsman trailing a basket ball and chain, a rapper who objectifies IMMA (writhing provocatively at his feet), a prisoner reaching for a light that IMMA holds just out of reach. Kosoko’s poems and monologues address what it means to be a young black and male, or trans, in America today, tracing a lineage of the disappeared and affirming that ‘I won’t let them take away my black joy’. Muhammad, the young man who’s been killed, is Kosoko’s brother.
The performance is rich with references to the performers’ influences: Kosoko wears one white glove à la Michael Jackson, and underwear that says ‘Black Power’ in silver glitter; IMMA channels Grace Jones; Nina Simone discusses racial politics on the projector. Kosoko spreads out books to read – by Audre Lourde, bell hooks, and others – IMMA picks the texts up and licks them. ‘I’m reading’, Kosoko says to canned laughter, ‘I’m reading’. All of these references invite us to revise our understanding of African American culture, personal grief, and ‘black joy’.
One of the books Kosoko recommends is called Bodies in Dissent, which could easily be a description of #negrophobia. This is a cutting-edge and painfully timely production voices and displays bodies in deliberately uncomfortable and provocative ways, nearly overwhelming us with images, references and stunning physical performance.