An account written by Khyle Raja
“You have to make this trip. Arrange to leave work early, promise you will be back even earlier tomorrow. Hope the car has petrol because this theatre would mean catching the bus, and the train back wouldn’t give any time to mix and mingle.”
We arrived a little early, but nonetheless the queue extended to the glass doors of the Mac. A mixture of ages, colours, backgrounds. Various cities in the house, and on stage to come – each an ambassador, representing the past 50 years of migration, habitation and survival to the very minute they arrived.
One passes through the wide corridor adorned with photographs of Birmingham’s well-established Yemeni community. Wise elders and bright young faces draw you in to a darkened space.
Almost pitch black, but for a sound stage dressed in wires, laptops and decks in a subtle blue hue.
Posters across a few walls, CCTV watching from a few angles and a number of stages surround you.
Opening – A soundscape. Faint, barely audible for a few moments and slowly growing. Our eyes begin to adapt to the dark and we can make out a few brick walls, mics and gangways. Cleveland Watkiss gradually layers tones with no instrument beyond his own voice.
Poetry – MC Conrad takes centre stage. Bathed in white light, he recounts a political address, filled with vague statements, context-less facts and a few buzz words on multiculturalism, oh and the need for surveillance. Those grand gestures promise much and reveal nothing.
He is interrupted by Stephen Morrison-Burke, Birmingham’s young poet laureate. Lights switch between them as he articulates a reality that clashes with the political spin.
Twisting and turning through the crowd, RTKal reminisces about hanging on the street, the safe refuge of cafes and gangs at war.
Mohammed Ali emerges from the dark, and a blackened brick wall takes on a bright white dawn. A rooftop chimneystack emerges; hope arriving with new faces, colour and cultures in inner city Birmingham.
Sparkbrook will never be the same.
Tones fade and switch, Martin Stannage enters. He recounts afternoons at Shamrock café ran by the Irish but filled with brown youth. He recalls the thrills of Space Invaders; dodging an imminent storm that looks daunting, heavy and vicious. It seems hopeless. He looks for help outside the bitmap but his peers are all massing outside, looking serious with barely a word spoken. He narrates as intrigue and curiosity leads him through the crowd, pushing and shoving his way forward. Game over. But the tension can’t be cut, no one moves. Skin heads on one side, the sons of immigrants on the other. No one moves.
A white-capped youth enters the mural at the end of an aerosol can. Above him, the bright sky gives way to a dark nemesis – a CCTV camera stalks him from across the street.
Standoffs shift stage to Rajput restaurant. Stephen weaves lyrically through lary punters, exotic menus and the exhausting shifts of self-made businesses. He recounts the alcohol fuelled blood rush as racism lifts its ugly head. A venom they kept secret even as they ate at an Indian restaurant. They don’t pay, but his father does. It hits home, as he is powerless to keep him from being beaten unconscious.
Then music brings us back. UB40, reggae & skar – two poets recounting through lyrics a conversation to be remembered. Both had the same passion, both loved the same anthems. One recalls a fateful standoff outside Shamrock. He who is selling the records was wearing dock martins, red laced amongst a crowd of clean, cold faces.
The other stood as an immigrant, invading a street, which he could never hope to own. Yet there he was, buying reggae music from is an old enemy who recalls peer pressure, fad and phase; who left it behind and embraced the unknown cultures he was brought up to hate. He leaves us with a strange taste and distrust that threatens to slow-poison a sparkbrook spring.
RTkall climbs a chimney stack an speaks into the camera. CCTV is projected onto the walls of Sparkbrook and the interiors of Rajput restaurant. Mohammed Ali adorns it with a powerful and sinister top lit face.
The face of surveillance.
No one can be trusted; not this lot, not the community here. Everyone is at risk, so everyone is under suspicion.
The voice crescendos, each of our poets joins the fray, recounting stories, mistakes, passions, fights, loss, grief, anger, optimism mixed with self loathing for a community gone off the rails. MC Conrad complains to an Uncle about fly tipping on once immaculate roads, only to find a rat. In his car.
Punks hold umbrellas at bus stops for unsuspecting young Asian women – a kindness never expected where dress and appearance are flipped on their heads in a decade.
But that camera bleeds green ink, music really did bring enemies together, space invaders had to be beaten and livelihoods carved out from the very houses people lived in.
If walls could speak, they would have told these stories.