A series of three improvisations created by MA Classical & Contemporary Text (MACCT) student Shakara Carter, between May 2020 and Feb 2021, with a special introduction from the Head of MACCT, Marc Silberschatz.
You are about to view a single story in three parts. That the work is presented in this way is, I think, essential. Each part has its own narrative arc, and each has moved me and challenged me deeply. Each part is also separated by gaps of time that Shakara leaps over. They come together in their separateness, however, creating a whole that is much greater than the sum of its parts. The gaps, I think, are essential to the artistry and power of the work. They might be thought of as space being made for those of us watching the work.
Having spent time with this work as a whole and in parts, I must confess to being overwhelmed – overwhelmed by their complexity, depth and honesty. I would not presume to try to capture in this introduction everything Shakara has offered here – even if I could do so, my words would never match the eloquence of the art she has created. The more I consider this work, the more I am convinced that the space it opens for us, though not always comfortable, allows us to engage in different ways based on the lenses we bring to it. To say too much would do a disservice to the work. Even so, I feel I must highlight one aspect. It seems to me that Shakara is exploring questions of what it means to live in a world that is fundamentally unjust – and what happens when it seems that’s the only world there is. In doing so, Shakara is speaking, performing and creating truth. And in the necessary conversations and reckonings now and to come, we will all need to speak truth – even and indeed especially, when that truth is difficult.
In that spirit, I feel it appropriate to offer you a piece of advice. When you reach the ending in the third part, make sure you give yourself time to fully digest it. Allow it to sit with you. Take stock of how it makes you feel. Then consider it in light of the whole story across all three parts. Having done that, allow the ending to slingshot you beyond the boundaries of the work – let your imagination play out what might come next – but do this with a clear-eyed view of the world and its injustices. Then re-examine how the ending makes you feel. This is a work of nuance, intelligence and an uncommon depth of feeling. The more of this you bring to your viewing of it, the more it will reward you.
A teacher once told me that theatre is the art of making people feel more human. It’s an idea that, directly and indirectly, has shaped much of what I’ve done for the past 20 years. This work certainly fits that description. And I feel honoured that Shakara has asked me to write this introduction, because what this work affirms is that to feel human can mean any number of things: we can feel uplifted or depressed; confused or certain; bold or frightened; content and angry. We can and do often feel all these things at once. This work has certainly made me feel all of that and more: human in every sense of the word.
Part 1: Accident
In May/June 2020, I was desperately trying to metabolise the deep pain under my skin, kicked up like dust by the apparent discovery of systemic and overt racism by…I don’t really know, everyone it seemed, including me. Though I can say for certain that mine was a rediscovery – since I spend a good chunk of time and energy every day tricking myself that inequity isn’t impacting me moment to moment. Survival tactic. I couldn’t find my place in the global fight, one I knew would soon be out of the headlines. I didn’t want it to be over – I kept myself awake for long nights willing consciousness to stay. I’d been researching pandas for a while by then, had recently discovered that a Panda will unconsciously abort her pregnancy and reabsorb the foetus, if her body deems the environment undesirable to raise a cub in. This is yet another apt metaphor in a long list that generated The Panda Project in the first place. So, motherhood was on my mind, as were all the mothers who have lost children to a system set against their glorious little babies from birth. When thoughts about race, colonialism, systems and inequity overwhelm me, I sometimes put on my Panda mask. I find it comforting, it helps me inhabit the abominable truths I am too afraid to admit in the daylight. And even, somehow, to find humour and healing in their admission…I hope you find that here too.
Part 2: Intent
The unsurprising die-down after the summer of 2020 reminded me of the die-down after Rana Plaza in 2013. The reminder of how utterly ignorant I’d been before it, to my changed world after. I remember returning some bedding ‘Made In Bangladesh’, and the ensuing exchange: “probably made by some eight-year-old kid”, “at least he’s got a job”. The Panda Project has always been about capturing the many layers of irresolution experienced by people who know ‘unbelonging’ in some way, shape or form – especially the internalised kind. The Pandas walk us through that labyrinth, but don’t try to solve it – in fact, our Panda willingly gets lost in it. Which is why these videos are improvisations. They’re not tidy or simple or able to be separated into digestible bits; the more I try to do that to myself, the more offensive and impossible I find it. This Panda will never ask you to be less complex so they can understand you on their terms. This Panda speaks to the complexity in us, even when she’s forgotten, abused, strong, dangerous, tricksy, adorable – not one at a time but all together. And, unlike me, she does not apologise for her complexity – she brings it all and leaves it there, just as it is.
Part 3: Inherit
So it turns out, nothing is perfect. There can be no freedom for our Panda in this world. But she is alive. Whether you call that sacred or chance, intentional or just bad luck – she is here, she has a choice. And she has made it.
I never set out to fix or right anything. I am not an activist or a wannabe politician. I am, just, an, actor. I just want to act. This uneasy resolution I am required to navigate is my daily reality in both my personal and professional life, one I rarely speak directly to. I lack the words and frankly, prefer to speak other peoples’. But this is the best, most honest way I can contextualise the horizon our Panda is now looking to. Unsatisfying, but a horizon nonetheless.