As part of ‘Writers On Hold’, an online new writing series created by The Alchemist Theatre Company, five monologues are showcased weekly (one per day) that are related to ‘feminimity’ and ‘identity’. In the narratives that make up The Coconut Series – which are written and performed by Janet Etuk – we meet three teenage girls whose individual sense of identity is inadvertently at odds with the racial ‘norm’.
In Kim 2.0. (a monologue delivered in two parts) the eponymous character is a black teenager who attends an all-girls school. As per the course of heteronormative adolescence, interest in the opposite sex is high at the school, as are ways of attracting the male gaze. At Kim’s school, the dance style of ‘whining’ is considered the norm and performing it in public as much a rite of passage as sex itself. Kim fantasises about a particular bouncer and the opportunity arises to lose her “grind-ginity”. However, in the heat of the moment, the thoughts and feelings that pass through Kim’s mind are not what she expected…
Etuk is ‘on point’ with her ear for dialogue and her observations about what passes for acceptable behaviour between the sexes. However, where the strength of the monologue truly lies is in the subtle commentary on the nature of feminine sexuality – what is ‘learnt’ and assimilated, and for whose pleasure does the act of dancing really benefits.
The perception of a national culture or history often varies between the generations – or even within one’s own family. In Mkpa Mbiet (Dead Grass) we meet a family who are reminiscing about their experiences during the Nigerian Civil War of 1967-70.
For Tia’s BBC project about her cultural heritage, Nettie digs out Gina’s photographs and poetry during the period of the exodus. The photographs feature not only Gina and her sister, but also their absent older brother Essien, whose image triggers a flurry of memories. It’s evident from what’s said that the patina of these events still weighs heavily on the sisters and that Essien’s absence is as deeply felt as their father’s… As for Nettie’s impromptu decision to leave her siblings, the sisters’ interpretation of events couldn’t be more different from each other…
The second half of the monologue is a more light-hearted affair as it focuses on Tia trying out her poetry for her brother Nathan, who gives his input. As the point of Tia’s exercise is to talk about her ‘roots’ and ‘heritage’, her early efforts are considered by Nathan to be trite and unauthentic, missing their mark. But Tia is the first to admit that she feels ‘British’ and fond of all the things that people who have grown up in Britain like. So what does that make her? And why should her experiences be mutually exclusive?
The final monologue (My Tracks) focuses on a south London girl and being put on the spot in class to choose a track of her choice. She knows what’s expected of her and the rigid expectations of what black people ‘should’ listen to. The truth is, like Skin – the black frontwoman of the band Skunk Anansie – she has an affinity with rock music and doesn’t feel that it makes her any less ‘black’. She does like and listen to the traditional MOBO (Music Of Black Origin) too, just not exclusively. Choosing a song from one of the ‘approved’ genres would save her a lot of grief, but should she be true to herself? As with her other monologues, My Tracks is very funny – the humour stemming from how ‘diversity’ doesn’t really exist when one deviates from precscribed cultural tastes in music.
In general, Etuk utilises humor to address many thorny issues and preconceptions regarding ‘black’ identity and the ‘policing’ of the communty’s self-image. Certainly ‘one size doesn’t fit all’, yet we hear through various ancillary characters the attitudes assimilated regarding how the black community ‘should’ behave, what tastes are ‘taboo’ and the disdain for individuality. Rather than undermining ‘diversity’ within the black community, it should be celebrated and encouraged. To ‘take the road less travelled by’ doesn’t make an individual a ‘Bounty’ or ‘coconut’. Only ‘free’.
© Michael Davis 2020
The Coconut Series can be watched online at: https://www.thealchemisttheatre.co.uk/coconutseries