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Behind Brownton Abbey at Brighton Festival

“We’re not taught to talk about race,” says Tarik Elmoutawakil, artist and creative producer at The Marlborough Theatre and one half of the brains behind Brownton Abbey, a complete and unabashed celebration of queer people of colour coming to Brighton Festival next month.

“We’re taught not to talk about it. What results is that everyone knows everything about the majority – we live in it – but then we have a majority which struggles to learn about people who are marginalised.”

He has a point. As we converse, I (a fairly well-educated millennial, yet straight white female) stumble across my nouns and terminology. Yes – even in 2018. And it seems I’m not alone. Tarik’s partnership with Brighton Festival’s Rob Jones was influenced in part by the friends’ disappointment with a well-known theatre show in London; one that claimed to celebrate queer, trans and intersex people of colour (QTIPOC), yet turned out to be far more exploitative.

“We had a real issue with it, and subsequently felt we wanted to show we had the power to represent ourselves – in a non-problematic way,” said Rob. The idea manifested itself last year, with the pair bringing gender non-conforming hip-hop artist Mykki Blanco to the Festival stage to roaring success. This year’s Brownton Abbey will present some of the same elements on a higher octane, with Queen of Bounce Big Freedia, Rachael Young, Ria Hartley, Malik Nashad Sharpe, Lasana Shabazz and DJ sets from Sista Selecta and DJ Jumeau uniting to utilise afro-futurism (a speculative fiction art form seen through a black lens – as seen, and commended, in Marvel’s Black Panther).

The celebration promises a ‘pastoral performance party, with celestial beings from queer dimensions transforming Brighton Dome into a kaleidoscopic off-world temple’. In short, it’s going to be a transcendental experience, inclusive to all and celebratory of ‘otherness’ and ‘difference’ – it’s also supported by Unlimited, meaning it’s also open to people with a range of access requirements – and a heck of a lot of fun. “Last year, we saw people come to our event who you don’t normally see out in Brighton together. We created this safe mixed harmonious atmosphere that had a really great vibe to it. We wanted to do the same this year but make it bigger; we’ve taken it up a couple of notches.”

Tellingly, the title is a play on ITV’s Downton Abbey, translating the television show’s power dynamics between classes to those between races – but that’s where the similarities end. “It’s quite a contentious issue,” explained Tarik. “What we found was that people want to make a show for a diverse audience – but they themselves don’t represent that diverse audience. So what happens is that people pick up artists and use them tokenistically.”

The pair explained that diversity quotas are often banded around – everywhere from mass corporations to arthouse productions – but the reality is that it can be quite a shallow process. “Instead of having others speak on behalf of us, what we instead wanted was to be able to make a safe space for ourselves. We want to show how that safe space can be radical, can be really exciting and fun, welcoming, and bring everyone together. There will be all sorts of people together having a wonderful time and, hopefully, without any tensions.

“We’re involving queer people of colour at every stage – from the production and artistic side to set-makers to the artists themselves – to avoid giving people the feeling of being used. We need to be part of that change – and the festival has been brilliant at supporting that, helping us embrace our ‘otherness’. It’s about taking back some of the power, proving that we can make this ourselves.”

With this year’s Festival looking like the most queer-friendly so far, and shows such as Brownton Abbey among the most exciting shows of the bunch, there seems to be a cultural shift of sorts when it comes to deciding who gets to make what, and for whom – which can only be a good thing.

“We’ve both worked on some incredible projects over the years with some inspirational artists – but it’s so rewarding to be involved in the embryonic stages of a show and make something that’s completely our own,” said Rob. “It’s nice to create a space where you can bring artists together who are very different with their own interpretations of a shared theme, and let them run wild with it. And then on top of that invite people along to join in on the experience.

“We believe Brownton Abbey is an unusually bright star, one we hope will keep shining a light far beyond its birthplace of Brighton.”

Brownton Abbey comes to Brighton Dome as part of Brighton Festival on Fri 25 May from 8pm-late. Tickets £15.

Get the tickets here.

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