Directing “Substance” – A Hip Hop Theatre Dance performance

I was invited by Jonzi D,  creator of Sadlers Wells’ Breakin’ Convention  join a collaboration with Redbridge Drama Centre.  The commission was to devise and develop  a spoken word and dance piece to tour schools and community centres in the Redbridge area to raise awareness around substance abuse and sexual exploitation in youth culture. The two more often than not come hand-in-hand  leaving many young people vulnerable and disoriented. Education is always the key in order to empower young people to make sensible decisions about drug and alcohol consumption and the vibrant youth cultural today.
I initially met with Redbridge Young people Theatre company to discuss what was most important to them when it came to youth culture and tackling social issues such as sex and mind altering substances, and friendship figured as a high priority.
Support networks, loyalty, allegiances and informally adopted “Fam” seemed to be the key element of well-being for young people who knew which risks were rife in their spheres of social engagement. They combat hyper sexualisation, hyper masculinity, cyber bullying and ‘drag culture’ (insistent body and intellect shaming often through social media). In combination with education or employment pressures, family responsibility  clashing with personal freedom and development, young people in their teens through to early twenties often fall prey to addictive substances whose potencies are intensified through dangerous concoctions and mixing in order to ‘fit in’ and/or appear cool and current.
I also met with Fusion NELFT – drugs and alcohol service for young people to get a clearer idea  of the impact of these substances on the mental health and well-being of young bodies, minds and relationships in many other settings outside of the  youth groups. Employment success was low and familiy tensions ran high as the substance drove rifts between users and their family members.
I was also surprised by some of the cultural sub-divisions in the  demographics of substance used among young people.Focused on the Redbridge area, stats revealed problematic alcohol consumption was high amongst mainly white males and Asian females. Amongst white females, MDMA and Ketamine were the drug of preference, where as cocaine was of high usage amongst Asian males. All partook of marijuana but it was a predominant amongst African and African-Caribbean groups.
Criminalisation of youth presents very serious issues for young people who often find themselves misrepresented in the media. The negative stigma of drug possession and/or consumption is compounded by gender and race. The sexualisation of young women intensifies with drug use, and with mainstream narratives on rape culture the increased chances of sexual exploitation in exchange for drugs or risky encounters leave them open to sexual disease or molestation. The story was going to be a hard but an interesting challenging one to tell.

Two scratch sharings with youth service providers and teachers from the schools who would be booking dates for the tour of the performance brought excellent feedback throughout the rehearsal period once we had established a clear narrative.
I was to collaborate with rising star in the UK dance world, choreographer Botis Seva who has been wow-ing audiences with his unique style of movement, which is lyrically raw with a compelling in its storytelling. Botis had a rigorous warmup regime to hi-tempo house beats prepping the body for his specific dance vocabulary.
Click on images.

The Story
The most concrete narrative through-line was the theme of friendships.  Close behind was peer pressure, family and religious responsibilities and commitments,  gender identity and grief.

Five friends go to a party  imbibe of alcohol and cannabis. The scene crescendos to a point where the personalities of the young revellers are ghoulishly possessed by the intoxicants, none of them experienced enough to know their limits or the full influence of the drugs they have taken. One girl, questioning her gender identity has her drink spiked. Not only does she make an awkward attempt to kiss a female character friend, she passes out and becomes the brunt of bullying when images of her are posted on social media .

Rehearsal of the Party Scene

As the images sweep around the school. She becomes the target for cyber bullying and isolation. The result places a huge tension on the friends, as it seems none of them looked out for her. Or couldn’t as they too were in various state of inebriation of intoxication. Interestingly enough, in the second school  the team performed for, there were tense murmurings in the assembly hall. It just so happens the school were in the middle of police investigations for a very similar incident depicted in performance.

The Team
Shangomola Edunjobi
Sia ‘HappyHeart’  Gbamoi
Lee Griffiths
Angela Maria Hurst
Ajani Johnson-Goffe

The show’s immediate relevance provoked lively  debate about the effect illegal highs – and once legal in the UK so readily available – on the lives of our young people. The substances take a toll on young bodies, distract them and are yet are embedded in youth culture as critical rites of passage. The further implications and impacts on the relationships young people build today in effort to belong, to become young adults and the decisions they make for the future, can only be measured by education that does not shy way from the dilapidating economic, political and social dynamics today.

Young People’s Statistics from the National Drug Treatment Monitoring System


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