As the ongoing migration crisis continues to fuel dangerous racism across Europe, one theatre company is hoping to illuminate the present by looking to the past – specifically the life and death of civil rights leader Martin Luther King.
“A play about the present problems would lack perspective and probably preach to the converted, or at least be very predictable,” said Paul Stebbings, artistic direct of British touring company TNT and the author of America: Dreams and Nightmares, which will be playing in Valletta this week as part of aninternational tour.
“Through the prism of the events in the US 50 or so years ago, people in Malta can reflect on their own experience and be moved by history as opposed to being oppressed by the present,” Mr Stebbings told the Times of Malta.
The play, which has already been performed across Europe and further afield ahead of its visit to Malta, explores the spiritual and political journey of a once humble preacher raised to the status of icon and martyr.
What we have in common is far more important and unifying than our differences
It picks up the story at Memphis just a few moments before King was murdered and delves into the conflicts, inner demons, guilt and fragility of this great leader. Nearly half a century since his death, Mr Stebbings believes King’s life and struggle against racial inequality can still serve as a metaphor to inform and ask hard questions about the struggles we are facing today.
“The first half of Martin Luther King’s struggle was clear – literally black and white – and he essentially emancipated the American South. The second part of his life’s work was more ambiguous, in a sense a heroic failure, as he looked at the wider implications of non-violence and the relation between poverty and racism,” Mr Stebbings said. “In our world, so troubled by violence and mass migration, radical Islam and radical nationalism there are surely lessons to be learnt.”
The performance comes at a time when a number of playwrights are seeking to put the same pressing contemporary issue under the lens – Anders Lustgarten’s Lampedusa, which looks directly at the Mediterranean migration crisis, wrapped up a run at St James Cavalier yesterday.
Mr Stebbings said that by combining different theatrical styles – documentary realism, psychological conflict, live music and more – the company hoped to use the theatre to uplift and entertain but also to challenge, asking hard questions even of people sympathetic to the issues under discussion.
“We need theatre because we are swamped by impersonal media,” he said. “Facebook friends replace real friends, fantasy worlds replace historical worlds and most of us spend our days looking at a screen for work and our evenings looking at a screen for pleasure.”
Given the subject matter of the performance, what has also been interesting is the reactions the company – which visits some 30 countries a year on three continents – has received from audiences with very different histories and modern experiences of race relations.
But Mr Stebbings said that what has been most striking despite all this is the similarity of the responses to the play.
“Racism changes its shape and form. In Poland, say, the racism is based on fear of change as there are so few immigrants, while in France there is racial tension on a par to the US. So in that sense the impact of the play changes –but the response is similar,” he said.
“Racists and nationalists like to pretend that we are different, tribal beings but the truth is that what we have in common is far more important and unifying than our differences. I hope our work is an example of that truth.”
Performances of the play, which is supported by the US Embassy in Malta, will take place at the Mediterranean Conference Centre at 10am and 8pm on Thursday and Friday.
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