Chickenshed’s tranche of shows which covered topical issues of the day from the previous decade have retained their potency and a degree of currency. While it means that they remain a stimulating watch it also demonstrates that solutions to many of the concerns raised (the environment, mental health, knife crime, etc.) have still not come to pass. The show from 2017 covers the topic of civil rights and is called Blowin’ In The Wind. The title, taken from the famous Bob Dylan protest song of the early 1960s, suggests that the ongoing struggle for civil rights is also still continuing and will remain one of the big unanswered questions in contemporary society.
There’s an air of the (enjoyable) history lesson about this show which we are guided through by central figure Rosa Parks who famously, though unwittingly, sparked the push for racial equality in last mid-century America. We see her mostly on a recreation of the Alabama bus, the site of her passive protest from where she sets context and comments on the unfolding action of the various sections which make up the show. These are quite varied although, at first, I thought the whole piece was going to be America centric as the Parks case is followed by the murder of Hattie Carroll (subject of another Dylan song) and more recently the Dakota Pipeline protests of the Native Americans. But the show does go on to focus on other areas of the globe with sections on the fall of the Berlin Wall, the use of children as soldiers in armed conflicts, the disparus in South America and the British miners strike of the 1980s. It is sobering to think that a lot of what we are seeing took place before many of the participants were even born but the powerful historical thread culminates in something that they will more readily recognise The Black Lives Matter movement, and this demonstrates how civil rights is part of a continuum rather than something in isolation. The show concludes with a sense of optimism about how the future may well be more promising as long as we can learn lessons from the past we have been witnessing.
In common with other productions from this period of Chickenshed’s theatrical social awareness programme, the piece is essentially a mixed media collage with distinct sections constructed around large sets of performers using factual spoken word, poetry, co-ordinated movement and dance to illustrate the themes. There is also plenty of evocative music with Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” and Sting’s “They Dance Alone” being particular highlights.
It has to be said that the visual and aural quality of the film is not great but then it was clearly never intended for public consumption in quite this way. It is filmed from one fixed camera from the back of the auditorium in a somewhat dark atmosphere making it difficult to discern faces and feel really engaged with what we are seeing. The sound quality also leaves much to be desired, and I was glad of the automatic subtitling to assist understanding. Far too often the captions just read “Music and shouting”; although this is in line with the rightly angry tone of the show it did tend to become wearing.
Looking past the technical aspects, though, one can only wonder once again at the commitment and evident passion of the performers who under Lou Stein’s energetic direction entertain us while really making us take stock. This may not have been my favourite Chickenshed show but it has probably been the one which has made me think the most.