“So, Black artists can make great work, get great reviews and sell out shows. Who knew?!
Yes, it is yet another ‘Edinburgh-Festival-Fringe-sucks-at-diversity-for-yet-another-year-and-to-be-honest-it’s-just-getting-really-ridiculous-now-but-also-y’all-need-to-hear-a-few-home-truths.docx’ article, but before we get into all that, I’m going to start on a C-major chord.
This is my fourth year at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and I have to say, it’s been my best one yet – though I am still yet to defeat the devilish hills and steep steps of Scotland. Being the largest arts festival in the world, Edinburgh Festival Fringe has always been a trippy, Rick and Morty-esque experience for me, and will probably always stand out as one of the most unique festivals to exist. To transform an entire city into an arts-mania for an entire month as a part of Edinburgh’s everyday living is pretty surreal; your local café is a theatre, Chiquitos is a spoken word and comedy house and you’ll probably end up accidentally walking in on a free Fringe show on your way to your favourite pub and hoarding an impressive collection of flyers.
As much as I love experiencing the Fringe (and feel every Black maker should be able to at some point in their career – but that’s an article for another day) and have been privileged enough to attend every year since my official step into producing, you definitely become more aware of your existence in the sea of white heads, which can be emotionally taxing. If I had bothered to start counting, I would’ve quickly lost my place in documenting how many times I had been the only Black face in the room – including the performer – and there are fewer things worse than sitting through plain, mediocre work that lightly touches on racial or gender-based dynamics in a bid to be ‘deep’, wrapped up in middle-class-white-man guilt. On the bright side, people rarely suspect I’m someone that holds even an iota of clout in the industry, so it’s pretty easy to slip away without being greeted with, “oh, you’re Tobi! I wasn’t expecting…” and being grabbed afterwards for feedback.
In all seriousness, granted, the Fringe isn’t notoriously known for its top-notch diversity, but let’s face it: Edinburgh Festival Fringe is a microcosm of the arts sector as a whole; largely dominated by white artists who can afford to occupy these spaces in a sector that claims to be representative of everyone, who are hired and supported by people that look like them, who are trusted without having to work endlessly to prove they have earned their place in this sector and are given opportunity regardless of how ‘brown bread’ their work may be.
We’re all aware of the hardships of getting work up to the Fringe – the costs of pretty much moving to Scotland for a month and taking your art family with you, plus the amount of money spent on creating a solid marketing strategy to do your best to make sure your show doesn’t drown in the Sea of Flyers, multiplied by liaising with venues and having to do menial things like eat, equals the amount of emotional stress, physical burning-out and actual money that people don’t tend to give to ‘diverse’ work in the first place.
With that being said, in my Edinburgh Fringe pre-planning this year, I noticed a lot more Black voices at the forefront of the Fringe, leading in greatness and snatching all those stars like Super Mario pros – Selina Thompson’s powerfully potent salt., Inua Ellams’ autobiographical, reminiscent-of-pounded-yam-and-egusi-soup poetical voyage in An Evening With an Immigrant, Yolanda Mercy’s British-Nigerian coming-of-age, tight-hugging show Quarter Life Crisis, Athena Kugblenu’s comical political commentary in KMT, Paula Varjack’s Show Me The Money, Theresa Ikoko’s Girls, Natasha Marshall’s Half-Breed, Nathan Byron’s mixed brain, Ola Ince’s Start Swimming, Hot Brown Honey decolonising and moisturising late-night entertainment, accompanied by a strong presence from Black-led organisations such as tiata fahodzi and Talawa, and the many more artists I couldn’t see in my short time here. Black artists are absolutely bossing the Fringe this year, and nobody should be surprised by it.
Black artists making high-quality and engaging work isn’t a new phenomenon and shouldn’t be treated as such, they’re merely receiving the belated respect they’ve been due. It warms my heart to the brim to see artists like Selina being given the props they deserve en masse, but Selina has been out here, they have all been out here, and we all done told you from time.*
To see the work of Black people storm the Fringe is to debase any and every senseless argument that this work is not sellable (Madani Younis, powerhouse Artistic Director of the Bush Theatre, breaks this down beautifully in his article). Including me, there are probably about 50 Black people at the Fringe throughout the month (okay, that might be hyperbole, but the sentiment remains the same). We’re not the main consumers here, so what is the truth? You cannot genuinely talk about the ‘risk’ behind programming ‘diverse’ work when the same work is excelling in one of the ‘riskiest’ settings in the industry. The sector isn’t as forward-thinking and game-changing as it likes to believe and its conservatism lies in its response to artists making loud, unapologetic work.
This success, as great as it is, brings another imbalance into the mix. Though it’s great seeing more Black artists on stage, the black:white ratio of audiences is pretty abysmal (again, another article for another day). The experience of making or observing Black work in a white space is like to be a fly on the wall of your own home, to know that these audiences and institutions ultimately decide whether your lived experience is significant enough for success. I’m continuously grateful for the artists named above – and the many others like them – that continue to take sledge-hammers to brick and knock down walls for us, that build homes for us and our experiences with little to no funding or support, that continue to shout from the rooftops in all their unadulterated truthfulness.
To quote badass poet and phenomenal womxn Bayan Goudarzpour: ‘BAME-led projects are most likely to be funded by nobody but benefit absolutely everybody. The generosity these events shows [sic] to the community and residents is rarely reciprocated by councils or funders.’
Black excellence is in abundance, and I see it through the artists refusing to be kept in the shadows of the industry. Long-reigning and fierce talents such as Yomi Sode, Ria Hartley, Kat Francois, Arinzé Kene, Lekan Lawal, Lynette Linton, Deanna Rodger, Roy Alexander Weise, Seraphina Beh, Ronke Adékoluejo, Caleb Femi and many, many, many more.
If you truly want to see ‘diverse’ work, you will find it. It isn’t a Horcrux hidden in the depths of the world, it is everywhere and is constantly informing and shaping the arts beneath the soil.
So, now the sector has gotten its fix of heartfelt storytelling and educational content, put your money, time, space and support where your mouth is, because what you are about to witness is a complete muay-thai-kick-to-the-face kind of Black artistic revolution.
*We’ve been telling you for a long time (just in case).”
(Photograph above: Quarter Life Crisis by Yolanda Mercy, photograph taken by Helen Murray.)