Thursday 25 February 2010

The only thing that could ever reach me

Adisa 1968: the year that never ended, Barbican, London

It’s an innovative initiative: use performance poetry to explore the ‘60s and their legacy through the music that was made, loved, played and listened to. As performer Adisa quickly points out, for many these years were shot through with the idea that ‘the personal is political’; the desire for self-expression, new forms of connection and engagement and the breaking out of old restrictive identities shaping a generation. Yet as this show goes into the second half, and Adisa takes off a lively chat show preacher with his commercialised radical message on ‘Revolution TV’, it’s today’s cynicism – and cynicism about the cynicism – that really gets under your skin.

1968: the year that never ended is an apt name for what serves as a striking example of today’s celebration of cultural differences in terms of race. Indeed, there is something in being proud of who you are; something more difficult in deciding what it means to be good at what you do, and you hope that Adisa might next time turn his talents to a topic that reflects a little less the dominant mainstream view. A one-man show plus special guest (Randolph Matthews), it traces the childhood and early adulthood of a second generation immigrant, caught on the cusp between old and new, with a father who smacks him and a mother who unhappily confides in her son. This is honestly more victim than happy bunny. Though it’s also a story of self-definition, of growing up – whose most moving moments are actually caught up with feelings of loss, of the permanently distant father who dies, the giving up of past – the open nature of the new. That Adisa has worked in an educational setting comes as no surprise.

In fact, this piece is set to interrogate themes of leadership, and the father-son motif works well. Adisa is a lively performer as he leaps and laughs around the stage, telling us about what it was like to be young and playing two-people games on his own, trying to DJ and not having the right accent, beefing up and finally finding a girlfriend. The sense is more one of self-belief, but one which can at times genuinely push out into the world. A touching moment is when this young man discovers new types of music, reggae, afrobeat…classical! It is okay to like classical, it is okay, hooray! It’s the music that touches and communicates, helps people open up – and perhaps discover new ideas and ways of being in the world. And it’s the music of 68 that we have appropriated, and relate to, now.

The final night of a national tour, the show has been presented by Renaissance One, who specialise in contemporary literature, poetry and the spoken word, and are - perhaps testament to the hint of revival in performance poetry - ten years old this year. A successful tour around the country shows the draw of their approach to contemporary audiences. But by Adisa’s end-of-show audience-participation chants of ‘1, 9, 6, 8 – who do we appreciate?’, this generally engaging act seems to have forgotten what the answer might be. He’s maybe not the only one. 

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