We’re used to expecting little correct answers to everything. TV dramas play slow strings or a jaunty marimba to signal to viewers when to feel happy or sad. Advertisements use cartoon characters and cuddly toys to sell fish fingers, gas suppliers and car insurance to grown-ups. Each day there are countless new forms to fill out, from email sign-up lists to a wellbeing Q + A of how you feel on a scale of 1 to 5.
In one scene of “Weapon of Choice”, an interactive performance and workshop led by Angus Scott-Miller and Bamshad Abedi-Amin, with Pan Arts, the main character Emile is asked by his prison counsellor a question like this. How confident do you feel, on a scale of 1 to 5? He struggles to answer. Two? The session is abruptly terminated by Emile, who can’t come up with an answer to any of the questionnaire’s bland, tick-tock requests, and there’s no other means that the prison counsellor feels comfortable to interact with him. If it’s not a neat answer, it doesn’t belong.
“Weapon of Choice” plays with these problems. It’s a familiar behind the headlines tale of sorts, aiming to use choice as a weapon to present real life scenarios encountered by young men in London today. In this case, it’s a young black man who struggles against peer pressure to help a friend sell drugs by carrying a knife. Of course, things go dramatically wrong and Emile stabs a deceitful dealer in defending his friend, and is sent to prison. He doesn’t know what to do. It’s a play about a familiar downward spiral faced by a lot of young men in London’s deprived communities, troubled by gang violence and a lack of opportunities or alternatives. But rather than some standard A to B urban tragedy, there’s a difference here: Pan Arts call it ‘forum theatre’. The audience collectively get to stop the action, shouting out to pause the action and come down and play Emile, and act out alternatives. After 45 minutes the play finishes, and the cast re-play three key scenes. If we’ve got a suggestion as to whether Emile should’ve defended his friend getting robbed, talked to his Dad, or stabbed the dealer in question, we get to shout it out (and the young audience at the Roundhouse does)! Could we do things differently?
But the right answer isn’t always obvious, and the audience’s suggestions are often wrong, or fail to significantly avert Emile’s passive going with the flow into further trouble. In one scene, Emile carries a knife while his friend sells drugs in a deliberately set up robbery by a manipulative dealer. While Emile is distracted by his phone, the friend with the drugs is robbed by an older boy. A volunteer comes on stage, and rather than takes the knife, offers to sell the drugs, and so instead he gets robbed. In another scene, Emile sneaks in late home after the robbery but is confronted by his Dad. What’s happening to you? We need to talk. The brave volunteer changes the action by making sure Dad ‘doesn’t worry’. In the final scene, where Emile stabs the dealer in defending his friend, a volunteer comes on stage and hides the knife, but after being provoked in the fight, stabs the dealer again anyway. ‘He started it!’ The audience participation is pretty entertaining, but what’s most moving is the uncertainty throughout. What should a young man be? How can he resist peer pressure to slide into more and more risky activities, but not feel like he’s abandoning his mates? It’s not obvious. How can he study at school when the (supply) teachers can’t keep control of classrooms? Just like life, there isn’t an obvious answer, which makes the fact that the “forum” gets it wrong so often even more realistic.
It’s fatalistic in that sense, but this is where it’s less a case of life imitating art. What’s lacking is a more simple question: why? Why do these young guys mask their doubts and uncertainties with a tough shell? What are they masking, and why? Why do these young men underachieve at school, and need to then seek protection, recognition and status in other people’s fear and envy? Maybe it’s got something to do with the lack of choices available to these inner London men, as their communities live with years of underinvestment and a lack of work opportunities and social supports. Maybe defining your identity in material goods is a refuge of young men not taught to value their deeper qualities, or not spending enough time around loving people to value this. Maybe, if Emile and his mates had a language to explain how they felt, deep inside, they wouldn’t just shrug and feel misunderstood, and misunderstand, the positive role models around them. Or – maybe there’s no obvious answer. Like Emile talking to his dad, struggling to explain his life and what he’s doing, an opportunity comes at the end of the play to talk to the person next to you about your thoughts. I asked the guy next to me, a friend of one of the cast (the actors themselves are young men who have experienced gang violence first-hand), what’s the alternative? And we both laughed, and kinda shrugged.
Find out more about Weapon of Choice, and where it’ll be next showing, at http://www.pan-arts.net/pages/weapon-of-choice-2012.html.