Fronteiras is a new performingborders series engaging in research on language, translation and cross-border working methodologies, tapping into how language and perception of cultural signifiers changes when working transnationally.
mandla is a poet and performance maker based in Manchester who has been making work and experimenting artistically from a place of multifaceted borders and frontiers for years. Their work often spans film, performance and spoken word and it is the combination of those practices and their navigating multiple languagas, namely isiNdebele and English, live on stage that makes mandla’s work and voice so interesting for our research on language and cultural perceptions.
Welcome to performingborders, mandla. We have been following your work closely over the past few years, and it has been amazing seeing you grow creatively and aesthetically. Can you tell us a bit about your trajectory as an artist, including the experience to bring your beautiful poetry to the stage?
Thank you! I’m honestly making it up as I go along, I like to think and play. My degree was in English Literature and Creative Writing so performance is something I’m learning as I grow. I wrote a play instead of a dissertation because I got given that choice at uni and theatre’s been something I’ve always enjoyed but I didn’t continue with drama after GCSE, the teacher definitely had favourites and I wasn’t one of them so for a long time I didn’t see my physical self in the theatres outside of a poetry set here and there.
When I started writing the show I had no idea there would be watermelons in the story but the more I dived into my own archives, the more I realised I had to do something while performing that would take my attention away from the emotion in the words I was saying and destroy the power these memories have had over me in some way.
I’m very thankful to lots of incredible people paying attention to what I’m doing and supporting me, giving me space to carve out a mandla-shaped hole in the world. I am able to be an artist thanks to people believing in me and my ideas. When she was making her last solo show Man on the Moon, Keisha Thompson (whose appointment as Artistic Director of Contact is just the most well deserved achievement!) let me spend time shadowing her process and learning how everything came together. I don’t know if she knew I’d end up making a show, at the time I didn’t think I would.
Getting the GM LGBTQ Arts and Culture Network bursary led to me pitching the bare bones of an idea for a show in a room full of venues/producers/creative organisations and the woman who would become the producer for the melons was in the room. Jayne is as much the powerhouse behind the melons as I am, and she’s helped me put together the most fantastic team of collaborators for the show, as well as convince lots of very respectable venues to put it on. I’m very anxious and shy, Jayne is excellent with people and communicating.
I also got some funding from Hope Mill Theatre’s Turn On Festival and a spot at their inaugural festival, it was the first time I’d ever been the only thing that was happening at a theatre that night and people actually came. I was very surprised when I walked out from the wings. They let me make as much of a mess as I wanted and after that, Contact asked me if I wanted to make it into a full show for Queer Contact. Their programmer at the time Pelin Basaran and also Contacts former AD Matt Fenton have always been really supportive of me and my fellow re:con member’s work and have gone above and beyond to support my cohort in our development as artists so Contact really feels like my creative home in a lot of ways. I jumped at the chance to have my own whole show at my favourite castle!
Over the past few years, you have created poetry and films and now a performance piece based on your experiences of being a person, and then an artist, who exists and works at the intersection of various types of borders in the UK. Can you tell us a bit on how being a migrant artist in the UK has impacted your work?
For a really long time being a migrant wasn’t really something I had a means to talk about and I never really used to write about it or try to bring too much attention to it. When I got involved with Journeys Festival International was when I guess I found a platform to talk about being a migrant in my work? To actually talk about it, not just make vague remarks in random poems here and there. When I started telling my friends I had to study for the Life in the UK test, quite a few of them were surprised to learn I wasn’t already ‘British’ because of how little I mentioned my immigration status. I’ve been here for so long and my voice sounds the way it does so a lot of people don’t know unless I tell them.
I originally applied for a job as Assistant Producer for the festival which I didn’t get, but that rejection led to some of the most fulfilling work I’ve done as an artist.
One of my first paid commissions was from JFI for a project where a series of letters were written by myself and members of Manchester’s asylum seeking community who were engaged with the organisation. The festival producer Dan is absolutely incredible. He and ArtReach’s Exec Producer Maddie have really supported my work and ideas. Ever since they interviewed me for the first time back in 2019, they would make space for me to explore different issues surrounding the intersections of being an immigrant in a way that really raised my artistic practice. From curating a programme of films, to a whole digital exhibition, to writing a script for a short film with an artist I really look up to, Akeim Toussaint-Buck.
A few years ago, I had an experience where I couldn’t take the exhibition of work on tour because at the time I wasn’t allowed to travel out of the country and I confided in Dan about this. He popped up a few months later asking if I wanted to commission artists who have also had a similar experience of being denied access to travel to make new works. The Freedom of Movement? exhibition was a really great way to channel those feelings of shame and frustration because I got to work with artists all over Europe who were or had been in the same boat as me and I love love love being in a position where I can get artists funding to make work!
To this day I can’t believe that letting someone know about this thing that I felt really ashamed about, led to growing in my practice – being in a room of decision makers insisting why it’s really important that we support this artist (Pankaj Tiwari) on a 312km walk across borders (The Art of Walking, 2020) and being listened to. Organisations like Journeys and Counterpoints are honestly radical in the way they’ve worked with me as an artist, I feel like I showed up and said ‘idk this is who I am this is what I do and how I think here’s some things I’ve written etc’ and they were like ‘we like your mind say more things come and make some decisions with us about how we spend our money and present ourselves’.
So I guess being a migrant artist has generally impacted my work in a positive way, it’s interesting that something I used to be ashamed of has ended up opening so many doors for me.
I think as british as a watermelon is just as about mental health and childhood trauma as it is about being an immigrant trawling through their memories and senses for an essence that reminds them of home and it’s also about being a queer child trying to fit into a Christian environment that doesn’t have a place for you.
I don’t really think of myself as a ‘migrant’ artist per se – that feels like saying it’s my only intersection that’s at play when I’m writing. In that performance I think all those things are interlinked so I find it hard to say it’s about this or that because most of my physical research when making it was about complex post traumatic stress disorder but I have also read and watched for coloured girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange countless times in the last ten years. I get sad sometimes and read it out to myself or put the film on (Ntozake’s film which is free on youtube, not Tyler Perry’s) so it’s obviously heavily influenced by that, by many Black writers whose words have inspired me. I think about Jazz by Toni Morrison a lot.
A lot of the things I discuss in the show unfortunately are not uncommon when we’re talking about people who are Black or immigrants or queer. Someone told me that after seeing the melons they asked all their friends to pronounce their name properly. Choosing my own name has been hard, I’m trying to shake off the rae and be a single name entity but I get so shy about correcting people – I don’t quite know yet if mandla rae has just gone beyond mandla and is an entity I can’t control. I think that’s what’s happening. When I’m on stage with my little apron and my watermelons and knives it’s a freedom I can’t quite put into words. I can’t break out of it until I’m off stage, the mandla you meet on the stage isn’t actually me. I’d like to be able to sometimes thank the audience and stuff but I genuinely can’t because that has nothing to do with the script and who I currently am in that moment. I never bow to the audience because it feels inappropriate somehow, even though this is technically a theatre show and that’s usually how they end.
I like the multiplicity, the list of unanswered questions in as british as a watermelon are all questions I had to answer during my interview that led to me being granted asylum/refugee status when I was 18. I don’t like to explain that in the show, there’s probably a great/dark point to be made there about how questions that ignorant cishet people ask LGBTQ people of any race, or questions people ask immigrants actually being state sanctioned ways queer and trans people at risk of violence have to answer in order to be granted safety and asylum. I think the asylum interview system is a game of chance, whoever interviews you throughout those long, arduous hours either believes you or they don’t. I think about it a lot, what if my interviewer didn’t like me and the vibe I was giving out that day? I could tell you all that in the show, but then where’s the intrigue in that?
I think the experiences I have definitely shape the work I make and that includes being a migrant, being queer, being agender, being traumatised, being Black, being African my god i really really love being African, and once upon a time I hated it because it meant we had to spend hours at the Home Office reporting centre. It’s all chance, isn’t it? All of these things were things I used to try or want to hide about myself, things I didn’t like or felt needed to be repressed. But all these different perspectives coming together have I guess shaped what is now my voice? I think my voice and the things I want to say are getting clearer and clearer, maybe a bit more confusing to some because more and more I’m using both of the languages I speak but I also think it’s possible for people to make sense of what I’m saying even if the words I’m using are a bit new to them.
Can you tell us a little about the practical process of creating as british as a watermelon, the performance?
The first bit of the show I wrote was the memory of the people who came to Bridget’s house that morning. I thought it was a long poem at the time, the first place I performed it was in Summer 2019 at New Queers on the Block Bradford with Marlborough Productions. It was so interesting saying it in front of people, the audience were a really lovely and queer crowd. It felt like a second baptism to just share that with people finally, to get it out of me. I must have told people about it before, surely? but I don’t have any memories of doing so.
When I first got funding, I got £1000 from the Greater Manchester Arts and Culture Network Bursary and also from Hope Mill, I couldn’t get anyone to work with me at the short notice I’d got the funding so I was alone in a cold rehearsal room for many hours. My lovely friend Maz Hedgehog came in a few times as they worked on their show and they said beautiful empowering things that helped me feel like I wasn’t making a self indulgent diary post. We hype each other a lot, it’s beautiful.
I’d pitched it as it would just be me on stage telling some stories and poems with a chair and a mic and then I went back a few weeks later to my funders explaining about the watermelons and tools and mess that were now integral to the piece. I had to do one performance of it without the melons, I looked like I was about to cry the whole time and it was at 10am in the morning. We live and learn. No melons before 6pm and never again no melons without melons.
Sonia Hughes was a really wonderful dramaturg and I’m really thankful to her and the way she worked with me. She asked me lots of questions and had a way of giving feedback that let me re-draft the script in a way that was centred around my safety and not so much excavating my trauma for the world to see. Jo Fong’s movement direction really pushed my performance and the way I move through the space, she helped me release the fire in my quiet vulnerability and channel my messy inner child. Graham Clayton-Chance, my film’s director, continued working with me on the live performance as I really loved his lighting design and the way his mind conjured the idea for the set, he’s got such a great eye for visuals and props. Together we brought the cooking show to life.
It was important to me not to have a ‘director’ in the space for the live performance in the traditional theatre sense as I wanted to steer away from hierarchies and one person’s voice being more important than others. It’s something I want to explore more in my practice and definitely learn more about and how it works in reality. I’m quite an intuitive performer and I continued spending lots of time in a room hanging out with words and watermelons even with a team around. There was and still is lots of improvisation in how I move and engage with the melons, more so now that I’m injured as the show tours.
If you look at the early performances of the melons and the live show we have now – the aesthetic jump is something that can only come from collaborating with people who are intrigued by or understand or want to understand the story I’m trying to tell and why I want to share it and having their minds in the space elevates everything I’m bringing with my words and tools and watermelon destruction.
There’s things I used to say that I don’t say in the show anymore. There’s one version of the script that I performed once to a handful of people mostly on zoom and I burst into tears right after it, I went home and re-wrote it completely.
Sonia would ask “are you sure you can say this in front of people, for 2-3 years?” If I decided the answer was no, I’d go back to the writing board and think of different ways to say it or maybe stop trying to say it altogether. They all really connected with what I was trying to do and helped me unpack it and figure it out and shape it out. I had to sometimes explain why something that was there suddenly wasn’t there the next day. I felt like I was being challenged and I think it was important for me to have that, it meant the decisions I was making as a writer and performer were thought out and considered and I had to make time to make sure everyone else knew why.
I kept trying to take the list of questions out, I wrote answers to each of them at one point and then I’d decide they were exposition and take away the answers and then try and remove the questions altogether. I think the scene where I’m talking about how memory is a long lost appetite is exposition and I tried to take it out but I have been outvoted by dramaturgs and outside eyes etc.
And in that, there’s something about having to pause and be like “heyyyy inner critic how you doing hun? if we sit down with the words long enough we’ll think they’re awful and want to erase every single word in the script. I know you, we tried it and it didn’t work, so listen to people and find a compromise if something feels strong in your gut. they are here to help, also their names are on this so they are genuinely interested in making this a good show so do not fuck this up because it’s not just you alone in the room anymore. Xxxx” I’m not sure when, but it definitely suddenly became not just something I made up but a serious business venture also, it’s built so much for my career with quite a decent list of funders and partners and supporters and people to credit for that.
Some members of the team were worried about the costume idea when I said “watermelon print shorts and top with a matching apron” and sent an ebay link to the fabric. Don’t get me wrong, when John Krausa the excellent costume designer first suggested it and showed me the fabric idea I was a bit like ooh could be great could also maybe not be, could’ve been too camp, it was a risk. We got African print fabrics as a back-up option but the first time I tried it on I was so unbelievably overjoyed.
The show is also about self preservation and the different ways it can look: healing the wounds of the inner child, repressing memories etc. I talked about this idea of self preservation as a theme with Keisha Thompson in the very early days of writing the piece and we talked of its use as a legal term. A woman killed her husband by hitting him over the head with a hammer and was released from her prison sentence because it was deemed to be an act of self preservation, she was a victim of his abuse for many years. I looked into this and other cases where victims kill their abusers. I was playing around one day in my bedroom with the tools and I figured out I could balance the hammer on my head.
Jayne, wonderful folks like Queer Arts North, Hope Mill Theatre, The Lowry, New Queers on the Block, Journeys Festival, Contact theatre, Queer House, Outbox Theatre, Horizons Showcase and Transform Festival, Greater Manchester Independents, Arts Council, the list honestly goes on and on of venues and organisations who have supported me and led to me bringing the melons to where they are now. It’s been so incredible to be given that trust as an artist, to sit in a room, knowing my bills are being paid so I can think and play and explore, to be given space to try out new material and excerpts in front of different audiences and be able to go back and see what works what doesn’t work what’s doesn’t need to be said etc. I think that can only lead to an artist making something that they really love. It’s uncomfortable and weird but it’s something I created, and by some great accident it’s going to Edinburgh International Festival this summer? (shameless plug because my producer would not be impressed if I didn’t mention that at least once 😂😘)
For a really long time I didn’t know how the performance ended. I was commissioned by my lovely friend Harry Clayton-Wright to ‘write something I would have wanted to read as a child’ for their zine You Otter Know in December 2020. In that poem I made a point about how I have a scar on my knee that I don’t know have a memory for and a few months after that lovely commission I was trying to wrap up the film that poem came into my head and a lightbulb went off in my head, and I wrote a memory that I believe to be at least half true inspired by that poem.
I don’t have any answers, I think I’m trying to explain how my mind is.
One of the thrilling moments in as british as a watermelon, was when you performed a whole section in your first language, isiNdebele, removing any translation which up until that moment had been so present in the show’s narrative. Can you tell us a bit about this moment, why you created that and what it meant for you? And what were people’s responses to it?
That moment came about because I think that story I’m telling can’t exist in that show in English.
I think I talk a lot about traumatic things but there are also things in the show that I have made up and y’know, been a writer about. I’ve obsessed over every word in the script. There’s no way I could actually tell people anything about my grandma that feels too true or too difficult for me to say. I like that she makes people laugh on her introduction. I also refer to a grandma at the airport as Gogo and my grandma is always ‘my grandma’ so there’s nothing to say that that memory is from when I was in this country. I tell everyone I’m a liar so how do we know anything I’m saying is true?
Keisha said to see how things feel to say out loud and that story’s interesting because when people ask me what that story means and I tell it in English, my voice gets shaky and it’s not ideal. I can tell it in isiNdebele with performative ease.
There’s questions I was asked about the audience a lot: what are they doing? Why are they here? Why am I telling them this?
I think there’s nothing wrong in assuming the audience don’t only speak English in the UK. I’m speaking my language knowing there will sometimes be people who understand even when I don’t translate. I don’t really translate the songs I sing in my language. In one of them, I sing my surname and I often wonder if people who don’t speak my language (or those who do) notice when I do that.
Even when people know the language I speak, I personally don’t think they’re getting much more context than a non-isiNdebele speaking audience member. I say an English word in the monologue which lets people know what the melons are in that moment. My actions are quite specific to the words i’m saying, I hope it’s clear that I’m going out of my way to make people understand.
It’s a challenge for myself as a writer and performer, how well can I tell a story? If I can try and get a whole group of people to feel what I’m feeling in that moment (or what I want them to feel 😉) even if they don’t know what I’m saying isn’t that, I don’t know, it’s something I’m definitely really interested in doing.
And I don’t think we have to describe trauma in deep details. I try to be vague, confuse and mislead the audience while hoping they’re keeping up with me. We go back and forward through time, in and out of my childhood, every bad thing gets destroyed and it’s fleeting. If I say something that is really quite upsetting but im not that sad as I say it, it’s actually just an off the cuff remark and less than two sentences later you’re somewhere else entirely wondering wait who’s got taken away where have they gone why do women keep disappearing? then (I hope) we don’t really have time to pity me. I don’t want pity, I want to write and tell stories well and to connect with the people who are listening.
The melons become something that’s used against me, up until then they’re either something I caress, a memory I destroy or pick apart etc. I used to stomp on them at the end of that scene but I can’t do that anymore because I’m injured and I’ve been workshopping a scream but I don’t really like it, I must figure out a way to destroy them. A scream felt right a few times but now I think it feels too melodramatic and close to displaying emotion that might bring me close to tears which I don’t like to do in the show. In that moment, the water from the melons is my tears. mandla does not cry in as british as a watermelon.
I think it’s the only scene where I think I show perhaps the expected level of emotion in regard to what I’m talking about, and in that moment I’m playing both my grandma and Bridget, so I’m blinking in and out of being an angry adult and a scared/sad crying child, there’s just a lot going on. I do wonder how much the audience are listening, I think they know what’s going on. I find it really interesting how I’m averse to it existing in English, even when I wrote it, it was in isiNdebele. I tried to write the full story in English as part of this answer but it felt…meh.
When you are in making processes of creating artistic work, what are the differences in creating a poem, or a performance, in your first language, and that of making work in English for a majority-English speaking audience?
I know that I used to not think in English but now I mostly think in English. I’m trying to train my brain not to always think in English. At the moment, there’s only sprinkles of my language in what’s a mostly english arrangement of words. Sometimes I translate, sometimes I don’t, at the moment a lot of it is intuitive I guess. I’d like to write more in isiNdebele, I’d like to write a whole play in my language.
I moved here when I was seven. I know my first language mostly from speaking it with my family at home, singing songs and exchanging text messages with family members who aren’t here. I haven’t studied isiNdebele, and I have a degree in writing in English.
There are some words that exist in english that don’t in my language and vice versa.
Translation is also not always exact, it’s sometimes the closest thing we have in the language we’re translating to. I have a poem where I try to translate something but one word can mean several different things and there’s some words that the English equivalent either doesn’t exist or feels…not quite enough.
When I write in isiNdebele it’s less about who the audience are and more about what happens when I’m there with my pen and pages in that moment, where my mind goes. The audience gets the bits of writing that I feel have articulated in the best attempt I can, whatever it is I think I’m trying to say or want to talk about.
mandla is a Zimbabwean-born writer and performer. mandla’s work draws on the artist’s intersectional existence. Using words as a medium, the artist is heavily concerned with communicating the many sensations of being a person.
mandla uses names in place of pronouns, this is because mandla is agender and gendered pronouns do not exist in mandla’s first language, isiNdebele.
mandla is obsessed with words and uses their power both written and performed to carve out a mandla-shaped space in the world.