Rachael Young made a massive splash into the performance art/dance scene a couple of years ago when she premiered OUT, her third full show, which was created in duet with Dwayne Antony, and performed at The Yard Theatre in Hackney Wick, East London.
The context of that performance was interesting to the understanding of how this artists’ work is so vital for the current theatre and performance art landscape: Hackney Wick has been ravished by a pool of savage gentrification that has over the past few years seen the area become too expensive and unwelcome for the very people who have inhabited it for a long time: artists, migrants, working class families and people of colour.
OUT took a firm stance on making a space to celebrate two black bodies who were reclaiming their blackness, their Jamaicanness, and their queerness amongst a community that isn’t particularly welcoming of those identities.
After touring extensively with OUT, Rachael is now back with a new show, NIGHTCLUBBING, which employs Grace Jones’ iconic 1981 album of the same name as the prism with which to explore contemporary struggles and celebrations of what it means to be a black artist, a black woman and a black queer in our communities – with a particular focus on the celebration!
I meet Rachael at the back of London’s Camden People’s Theatre, where she has been showing NIGHTCLUBBING to audience and critic acclaim. The show is short but poignant, incredibly stylish and visceral, cementing her as one of the most brilliant artists working today and one whose voice might just be one of the most important.
In our chat, we talk what it means to be a second-generation queer migrant of colour in the UK. Sometimes it is a tough conversation, breaching some intimate and personal experiences. But Rachael makes it concise and urgent, just like her show.
Please note: This chapter of the queeringborders series can be found in text below or in podcast form (at the end of this page).
IN CONVERSATION WITH RACHAEL YOUNG
Rachael: Hi, I’m Rachael Young. I am fine with she/her pronouns and at the moment I am calling myself a performance artist.
Xav: Why just at the moment?
Rachael: Well, because it has been a long process to kind of get here, but also I feel that is fitting with what I am doing at the moment. I am currently touring NIGHTCLUBBING and I guess that work is quite interdisciplinary. I think that my work now mixes quite a lot of things such as text, movement… And this is partly because I feel like I have com eto a place where I am like thinking about what I want to say and what form I think that would be best to kind of be, and sit within.
As you know, the last show I did was OUT, and that was really about me really wanting to explore movement and some of the things in that work, some of those conversations were hard to have, to vocalise, so I instead chose to embody them.
Xav: So what your intentions are will define the form of the piece?
Rachael: Yeah. I guess there was a lot of cultural signifiers whilst I was exploring OUT which felt… I guess that work was trying to break out of a box, because I felt like culturally sometimes you are only allowed to be one thing… so it was really important that I found my way to kind of explore that topic in a way that felt authentic. But also was kind of culturally specific, but also felt like it could be accessible; and I feel like if I think about being or like starting making work like years and years ago, or if I feel like going back to drama school, because that is where this all began, and if you think about the parts you get to play, you are bringing yourself to that role, but often you are playing parts that have only been played by white people before you, so that is quite hard to kind of navigate that and be yourself like ‘Am I being myself, or am I being Rachael playing white, here?’ do you know what I mean?
So it felt really important to not do that. Like, I am very proud of my cultural heritage, which is that my mum was from the Caribbean, from an Island called St Vincent, and my dad’s Jamaican. And that is really quite – I mean there are even frictions between those two places, between those two identities, and I wanted to be able to bring those to the work and be unapologetic for that. You know, a starting point was to have conversations with the person I was making the work at the time, Dwayne Antony, about what it means to be queer and what that means growing up with parents who are from the Caribbean, and how sometimes that is quite oppressive in terms of the person you can be in the public domain.
Xav: In terms of what people expect you to be?
Rachael: Yeah, in terms of what people expect you to be. I mean, I could even go back to saying that people don’t even expect that – I should probably have a proper job, you know?! But I have always kind of done my own thing. I remember when I was going to go to drama school in the first place and my mum was like ‘you’ll be back’ and I said ‘no I wont!’ – and off I went. Now unfortunately my mum is not around anymore – I am sure she would be super proud because she would be like ‘oh you managed to stick at something, that is great!’ – but yeah I think there is a thing about people telling you can’t and you’re like ‘yes I will, I will do that!”. I just felt it was important to have these conversations because there were many people around me who had similar experiences to me, people of a certain generation – my generation. I think for younger people maybe– I mean I can’t really speak to or say that it isn’t as hard for them, because I don’t really know that – but I feel like there is more visibility now so I hope that it is kind of easier… but it was about ‘look, we exist, we are here. We are very much still connected to our culture and being black, like I love being black – obviously you know if I am casting a black spell (in NIGHTCLUBBING) but there are also many facets of that, there is no one way of being black.
Xav: And how do you find people’s reactions, against the expectations imposed on you, once they saw the show?
Rachael: It was really really nice to have conversations with all the PoC people and having conversations about the importance of that work for them. You know, that show opens up a reimagining or a queering of the Dancehall space, and people being able to connect to that and see themselves within that, it feels like home, you know? It feels really nice to have those key elements that feel really specific and grounded in reality, but kind of queering it all.
Xav: I wonder if you could chat a bit about the influences of your work from the perspective of being a second-generation migrant of colour in the UK?
Rachael: I think there is something quite interesting about me knowing lots of people who are of a similar age as me and also from Nottingham, and a lot of them have moved away from Nottingham and came to London – so when I arrived, it was like ‘oh hey, here you all are!!”… because everyone felt restricted from the person they could be when they were at home and here they are like living their lives. I mean, when I came here (London) I felt like there was this big PoC community of queer people that I never even knew existed… and then it feels like – it’s not about coming home, it is about ‘ah, it is ok’. It is not particularly that it wasn’t (back in Nottingham) but it is about meeting those people, being part of a community down here has felt really… I wanna say empowering… there’s a better word than that… but just, kind of… like it helped me to be able to talk about all of this…
Xav: It gave you an avenue to explore that?!
Xav: So you felt like you didn’t have that possibility (of expressing yourself) in Nottingham?
Rachael: Definitely not.
Xav: What was it about Nottingham that didn’t allow that?
Rachael: Nottingham is really small, and everyone knows everyone and everyone’s business… I can’t go home without walking down the street and bumping into people. There is something nice about that, sometimes is nice to go home and feel that. But there is also something nice about being in a space that is away from all of that, and the anonymity of that space… and I always felt that from being in London the first time around – this is the second time I’ve lived in London… I also think that in terms of your creative process, it kind of opens the possibility – you know have I stayed in Nottingham, I don’t think I would have been able to create that work (OUT).
Xav: And with the team you worked with?…
Rachael: Yeah, yeah for sure…
Xav: Also, culturally, outside of the communities and context you can work with – resources wise, Nottingham –
Rachael: Yeah, I mean Nottingham is great because there aren’t so many of us – there are more of us now, but at the time there weren’t 70 artists working in town – so you have access to more resources, like you can get access to rehearsal space and people were interested in what I was doing… Obviously in London it is more difficult because there are more artists and less space generally… but at the same time, what moving brings about is access to a bunch of other creative people that I didn’t have access to before. Let’s not forget, when you are making work and apply for funding – they are always tight! – it is about what you can achieve. And I think being here (in London) just made that easier.
Xav: OUT has toured a lot – did you find differences in reception of your work depending on where you were?
Rachael: Hhhmmm… Yeah, I think the greatest reception was in Birmingham and that’s because it was just full of PoCs, and they read the work and connect with the work in a different way. Like, the work is for everyone right? I am not saying that it is not, but I want to look back and see audience members that look like me, with different shades, you know? So that was like.. the buy-in from the audience was great!
You know the section in the show when we have the oranges – normally that is really silent but there it kind of became this thing where it almost became a call and response. It was really engaging in a different way and it was really, really amazing, a really nice way to finish off the tour with.
Xav: Are you going back to those places?
Rachael: Oh my god, I would love to. Hopefully with the next piece I will be able to do that.
Xav: I wonder if, before we go into the new show, if we could talk a little bit about the progression from OUT to NIGHTCLUBBING, artistically and personally?
Rachael: I think both, actually. So I actually started to make the works in tandem. OUT just kind of moved quicker because people were really interested in it and I realized that we were on to something there. It was just an experiment to begin with, but the energy behind that work kind of galvanized it so I guess that it was why it was made first, but I always knew that OUT was pushing me in the direction that I wanted to go to, as an artist. It was a risky move, but I feel like it paid off, you know… It was about me exploring that territory, and being unapologetic about things that you have to say and largely you are going to make work about things that make people uncomfortable and maybe that is ok. Often I go and see work and I feel uncomfortable… but that shouldn’t make us not make something, you know?…
Xav: tell me a little bit about being uncomfortable when watching something?
Rachael: It is a lot to do about the stories where you don’t see yourself. Like, if I turn on the TV or general media, I think now it is changing but before our stories weren’t there. And if they were our stories, we were playing the drug dealer, or the prostitute… they weren’t about complex characters, or about complex experiences, and I feel like that’s what these two works allowed me to do.
Xav: What were your main influences about NIGHTCLUBBING?
Rachael: The main thing was about this event where these two women were not allowed to go into this club. And I feel like the reason for that – if we go back to what I was saying earlier – these women’s bodies were being policed in order to get into a space in their social time, and I always felt that being in London was a freer place than other places where I had been in the World. So this was crazy to me that this could be happening – and that it was that blatant that it kind of reached national press…
Xav: Could you just explain what happened with those two women?
Rachael: So basically I think there were two women or three on a night out and two of them were refused entrance to a club because their skin was ‘too dark’ and one of them was apparently ‘overweight’ – I don’t know how you classify that or why that should be a reason why you shouldn’t be allowed to have a night out?!
Rachael: Yeah. And I feel like black women get a hard rap sometimes. I was saying to you before that this kind of like, idea of the angry black woman or when you think about beauty standards… maybe now things are changing because we have access to creating our own content, so more people are doing that, so you have more opportunities to see black women being – I mean, I always think that black women are beautiful, but those darkner-skinned women are more present in the media and so we acknowledge their existence and they are less overlooked. The thing I mention in NIGHTCLUBBING about either being super invisible or hypervisible – that is a weird place to be in. And it is things like people only wanting to date you because you are black…
Rachael: Yeah or totally not acknowledging or trivializing your experience because you are black… so these two juxtapositions that you are faced with frequently….
Xav: And do you feel that experience also translates into the arts community?
Xav: You don’t have to dish names..
Rachael: Yeah. I mean, there has been times before when I had conversations with other artists of colour that have said that venues told them they didn’t need to programme that work because they already had a black person on that season. That’s ridiculous. I can go to watch a show and there is a whole season of work by and about white people, and they make this excuse by saying that the audiences are predominantly white but if you start programming more diverse work across the board – and that is not about programming that one show, and going ‘yeah we ticked that box’ – it is about making a commitment and kind of being fairer in the decision making when it comes to put work on.
Xav: I am constantly thinking about that. It has to do with that word – representation. It is so important but at the same time it can be used as a tool for very privileged white men to go ‘ooohh look at us, we ticked that box’ and that actually has a counter effect.
Rachael: Yeah and similarly, I think there is a thing about – I don’t want to be programmed within a season where you ‘programme artists of colour’… because I don’t want to be seen as getting work only because you’ve identified that there is a disparancy with the work that you usually programme. I want the work to be programmed because the work is good and I feel like I am really trying really hard to make work that is good and that speaks to a lot of people, even if it is about my experience or experiences of people like me.
Xav: I wonder if we could go back to NIGHTCLUBBING, the influence of Grace Jones in you as an artist and the making of the show… the presence this album had at its time and GJ had in our culture, how do you think it translated into now…
Rachael: Wow… I feel like I have spent the past two years kind of being interested in Grace Jones. Not that I wasn’t interested in Grace Jones before, but I feel like growing up and seeing Grace Jones – she was this kind of strange being to me. I heard a lot of people kind of going ‘oh Im scared of her’ you know?! But I’d see her being on TV and being really outspoken and me being really intrigued by that… erm… and it isn’t until I get older and getting to know what she stands for and who she is, and at the time when she was trying to b’break through – like, the importance of that. You know, the past informs the future and where we are going but you have to respect those people that have gone before us and like, the struggles they ahd to go through in order to be who they are.
One of the things about the work is that it is largely about taking up space and that being ok. Because I think when you are told that when you have an emotional response to things is aggressive, it kind of silences you. It says that behavior is unacceptable, it keeps a lid on things, and that something is wrong with you. There is nothing wrong with you because some people might have the same experience or reaction and not be demonized in the same way. So for the work, I have kind of like taken strength from Grace Jones. She’s an artist that was not just about the music, but it is about the whole package. She’s a brand, I guess. And she made a thing about her difference being her strength. She turned that different, the thing that people weren’t sure about into a complete strength, and she has ridden on that since then, which I think is super exciting.
Xav: And it is still riding right? It still new in many ways and unique. I wonder if that is a point of reference in your work. Like, the way I see Grace Jones and my interpretation of her and how unique she is, I wonder if that is part of my own bias, of my own descendent-of-colonial-heritage influences, because she was the only one we had for a long time.
Rachael: Well a lot of artists nowadays still cite her as their inspiration and she knows that as well as not being happy with some of them.
Xav: Oh really? Like who?
Rachael: I think she wasn’t particularly happy with Lady Gaga…
Xav: I mean, she is an Ikea version or her…
They both laugh
Rachael: Yeah and she is still doing that. I think my work is not about impersonating her, is more about using her as a filter through which to see the work and stand out. It is not about hiding at the back and making excuses for being here. It is about not being sorry about stepping forward and being ‘no-one will care who I am’… And I think with OUT and this work, there is a thing about black bodies and about us being able to kind of presenting in a way that feels authentic to us. It is about how they are seen, how they move in a space, and that not being dictated by someone else.
Xav: Thinking about all of this – about Grace Jones and the effect it has had on you – do you think the world has changed in any ways since 1981? Are we still trying to make spaces?…
Rachael: That is such a hard and depressing question. Because I want to say ‘yes’ and of course it has, but not as much as it should have. I think that is the thing. There is this movement that is happening at the moment and you can feel it, you know?! But I feel like artists of colour are galvanizing this thing where they say ‘hey we are here, we have this to say’ – and we are using our artistry to say it. And people are getting behind that. Maybe it was hard, when I was making this work, to think about if people were ready. Am I going to ruffle a few feathers with it? And evidently it will do, but maybe those feathers will need to be ruffled because they have been sitting pretty for a long time and it is about looking at yourself. I have been made to look at myself all the time and question if I am doing right/am I doing wrong? Look at my behaviours in this white supremacist world… and it is about people being accountable and taking responsibility for stuff. It is not all on us to be teaching or trying to improve things. Everyone needs to play a part in that. And maybe that is what this movement is about or feels like to me. I am not with your Janelle Monets, or you Solanges or your Donald Glovers. I am just a woman from Nottingham doing small things but I think this is all part about how we move forwards.
Xav: You might not be selling stadiums – at least not yet!…
Rachael: Not yet!…
Xav: … But – I saw this last night in NIGHTCLUBBING – plenty of people in the room who identified as black who felt super empowered by that moment (which I wont spoilt it cos you, reader, need to see this show!)
Rachael: Just seeing those faces looking back at you… it feels like the same moment that you see in these kids who go and see Black Panther and their faces are like… it’s that same thing of ‘oh shit this is for us’ you know?!
Xav: That F.U.B.U. right?
Rachael: Yeah! I am hoping that everyone can come and take something away from it and if it ruffles their feathers, they will have to ask themselves why that is. Because we are talking about our truths, you know. But also lots of people who came felt like – and not just black people – felt like they were energized you know?! That’s the thing that we need to be considering now – what next? How do we take this energy into the world? Hope I didn’t sound a little bit like Kanye then –
They both laugh.
Xav: Just to come back to a point that you raised earlier and that it was one of the things that kind of called my attention in the show – this juxtaposition of invisibility, visibility and hypervisibility. For you as an artist and as a queer person of colour, how do you navigate that?
Rachael: Ooff… I don’t even know… It’s funny you mention that… I think it is about kind of like, creating that space through my work. It is about visibility. It is having the strength to calling people out – but also about picking your battles, because it is tiring sometimes. That’s the thing about creating work that is so close to all of our politics – this kind of thing that sometimes is quite tiring. So it’s about taking care of yourself.
Xav: I was thinking about that last night on the train. If you think about specific communities, for example the transgender communities which has become this massive debate at the moment – as if it was a fucking debate in the first place – that has created hypervisibility that is demanding so much from communities that are often very oppressed.
Rachael: Yeah and they are very vulnerable. And it is like ‘we want you to speak’ but what kind of after-care are you providing? This is what I mean, you have to sometimes step away from that particular thing because to do it is not looking after myself. So it’s about making these stands.
Xav: Can you share with us any methodologies of care that others might want to employ?
Rachael: I guess having good people around you, and there is thing about taking space and time. I know that there has been a lot of talk about systems of care, when venues programme us and we are making the work… it is about how deep you go. There is an issue about putting people’s traumas in front of an audience and that being entertaining. It shouldn’t be entertaining. I think you get to choose how far you are willing to go with that, but sometimes I just want to make work about riding a big red bike or about love, I don’t know… I am making this work now because that is what I want to say right now but in the future what I might be passionate about might be making eggs.
They both laugh.
Xav: Bjork did a whole video of that. Did you see it?
Xav: Venus as a boy – it’s just her frying an egg!
Rachael: Damn it! Bjork did it first.
Xav: doing it on stage is new!
They both laugh.
Rachael: Next year, I will be boiling that egg!!
They both laugh.
Xav: So what’s next for Rachael Young?
Rachael: Oh my goodness… You know what, Xav… I was in this crazy place of making this work in like I coudnt see anything else but this show – and I was like ‘oh im never gonna make anything again’ and we were doing the second performance of it in Manchester and I was like ‘Oh I can see again, maybe I can start thinking about making something again’. I don’t know what that is… I guess it is just gonna be touring NIGHTCLUBBING and then we will see. Watch this space!
Xav: Any artists out there you would like to highlight?
Rachael: Im gonna be like Issa Rae at the Golden Globes and say ‘all the black people’! I am just rooting for all the PoCs out there, we need to galvanise this energy! All of you are amazing!
Rachael Young makes theatre, live art, interactive installations and socially engaged projects. She likes to work in the spaces between disciplines and discover new languages for performance through collaboration.
Her current work is exploring notions of freedom and bravery and is inspired by autobiographical experience in relation to socio-political landscapes. For Rachael, making art is about creating a platform from where she can shout about the things that matter to her, it’s about uncovering hidden narratives, reading between the lines and attempting to explore that which is often brushed under the carpet.
Rachael recently presented work at The Lowry, Tate Modern, New Art Exchange, Contact, National Theatre of Wales, Battersea Arts Centre, The Yard, //BUZZCUT//, Derby Theatre and Nottingham Playhouse and has been supported by Arts Council England, Arts Connect, mac birmingham, Curve, Ovalhouse and BBC Performing Arts Fund.
Featured image credit: Marcus Essenberg
Second picture credit: Xavier de Sousa