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Theatremaker Jamal Gerald: ‘Experiment as much as possible and really learn about yourself’

Jamal Gerald in Idol. Photo: the Other Richard

In his latest show Idol, Jamal Gerald combines African diasporic ritual, music and storytelling to explore religion and black representation. He tells Giverny Masso how a trip to Trinidad helped inspire the piece…

What is your show about?
It follows the journey of me growing up as a Catholic worshipping black and queer celebrities, and my experience of going to Trinidad last summer. There I learnt about the Orishas – deities from the West African Yoruba religion. It was the first time I saw myself, in terms of my complexion, within a spiritual and religious context. I’ll be exploring black representation, pop culture, religion and my experience of being a black queer man. There’s storytelling, movement, African diaspora rituals and live music.

How did you get into performance?
I started performing when I was 12, and I joined the group Leeds Young Authors. As a slam poet, I competed in slams in the UK and the USA. Then I did a degree at Leeds Beckett University in performance. My first piece, Faggot, focused on my experience of being a black gay man. When I think about it, I cringe, but everyone has to start somewhere – my practice and technique have developed over the years.

How did you find the experience of training?
It did some good, because I’m still making performance work. But there were difficulties, because many of the artists we studied were majority white, and I couldn’t relate to a lot of them. The curriculum needs a real shake-up. One reason I make work is because I don’t want aspiring black artists to feel what I felt during university – not seeing themselves – because that feeling does suck. There are a lot of black artists out there, so I don’t understand why they are not encouraged in the curriculum.

What other performance pieces have you done?
My one-to-one performance You See is essentially a conversation about privilege. There are six cards with ‘race’, ‘gender’, ‘class’, ‘sexual orientation’, ‘ability’ and ‘religion’ on them. I spend half an hour with each participant having a conversation about those themes. My show Dogmatic pissed off lots of people, because the process of doing it involved posting provocative things on Facebook. At first, I stated my honest opinion, but eventually I did it on purpose to see what response I’d get. We live at a time when people have their own echo chambers and when they come across an opinion that’s different from their own, they don’t know how to handle it. The show is actually about my journey of becoming socially conscious about racial inequality – it’s a combination of lecture, discussion, protest and storytelling.

What is your advice for artists starting to make their own work?
Take advantage of the fact that no one cares about your existence, because that’s when you get to experiment as much as possible and really learn about yourself and your practice. Just do whatever comes to mind. It doesn’t need to be perfect: no one begins being great, you have to start off shit before you can become great.

CV Jamal Gerald

Training: BA in performance, Leeds Beckett University (2012-15)
First professional role: Putting Words in Your Mouth with Scottee (2016)
Agent: None

Idol runs at Prime Studios in Leeds as part of Transform Festival on April 27 and 28

Putting Words in Your Mouth review at Roundhouse, London – ‘unsettling and complicated’


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