Art Against Racism

Three London Shows

Last week was the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Stephen Lawrence. People of my generation wince with pain when his name is mentioned.

Lager Sylt concentration camp. Alderney, 1945.

It was a murder that scarred the UK – an innocent, bright young man of 18 killed by racist thugs whilst waiting for a bus in South East London.

Lawrence was studying for his A levels and wanted to be an architect. He was our brother, our son, our grandson, our friend  – he was one of us. His death hurts and continues to hurt down the years.

In the same week, on 20th April, the English National Opera held the UK premiere of Blue by the American composer Jeannine Tessori with a libretto by her compatriot Tazewell Thompson.

It was a companion piece of their staging last year of Seven Last Words of the Unarmed by the American composer Joel Thompson which featured the last spoken words of seven unarmed black men killed by the police in the United States.

The first premiere was held with George Floyd in mind, and the second with Stephen Lawrence. Both evenings were immensely moving and a hallmark of the ENO under their outgoing Chief Executive, Stuart Murphy.

In a quiet and unassuming way, Murphy has completely changed London’s second opera house for the better. It has become a place that not only showcases remarkable operatic productions but also responds to the issues of the day.

Coming from a television background, Stuart Murphy has made it accessible to a much younger and more diverse audience thanks to clever programming and by insisting on affordable tickets.

Sadly the last months of his tenure have been spent saving the very existence of the ENO from the barbaric cuts of the Arts Council of England. In this, Murphy has fought tirelessly and has achieved some temporary reprieve.

In his final speech on stage last week, he told the current government that history is watching them and whatever damage they intend to inflict on our much-loved institutions. Like recent ENO productions, he was met with an avalanche of applause.

Blue is Stuart Murphy’s penultimate production at the helm and is no exception to the rule. It opens with four girlfriends in New York excited about the pregnancy of one of them until the others discover that the soon-to-be father is a cop and the child is a boy.

The friends tell the mother to be in no uncertain terms that it is a bad idea to bring an African American boy into this world of prejudice and violence, especially if his father is a man in blue.

British soprano and ENO regular Nadine Benjamin is absolutely enchanting as the Mother – her innocent joy is just infectious, especially in the scene after her baby has been born.

The boy grows up and becomes a stroppy teenager hitting out against his policeman father. The South African tenor Zwakele Tshabalaia is magnificent as the outraged boy fuming in his bedroom and aiming to be a graffiti artist.

During the interval, audience members could be overheard muttering that they were afraid it would end badly. And it did, at the beginning of the second half, with the brutal death of the boy from a police bullet at a peaceful protest.

Kenneth Kellogg as the Father and Ronald Samm as the Reverend gave the kind of performance where you were afraid to breathe unless you missed something.

The Mother’s grief is almost unbearable to witness. The box in the middle of the stage that was the set of their apartment starts rotating as though she was caught up in some demonic spin cycle of misery, tossed from side to side and helpless in her pain.

At the end, the whole audience rose to its feet and cheered because this was important theatre. It said something to all of us about prejudice and hatred. It mattered.

Blue is about racism in the US. It is about Black Lives Matter and the seemingly never-ending list of young black men who have been shot to death in America.

But it is also about Stephen Lawrence and about prejudice as a whole. How deeply upsetting it was, therefore, to wake up the weekend after the premiere to the news that the Black British London MP Diane Abbott wrote in a letter to The Observer that Irish, Jewish and Traveller people “undoubtedly experience prejudice…This is similar to racism and the two words are often used as if they are interchangeable”.

Abbott continued: “It is true that many types of white people with points of difference, such as redheads, can experience this prejudice. But they are not all their lives subject to racism.”

She went on to say that Jews, Travellers and the Irish had never sat at the back of a bus or been manacled on slave ships or not been allowed to vote as in South Africa.

Abbott had the Labour Party whip withdrawn from her upon publication and was accused of Antisemitism by the party leader Sir Keir Starmer.

The Labour MP apologised almost immediately with the somewhat feeble excuse that she made a mistake and sent an initial draft of the letter instead of the final version that never materialised.

Diane Abbott has made similar comments about white people in the past, but this was the first time she included Jews. All this is upsetting as she has been the target of more racist online abuse than any other MP. She was also attacked viciously by members of her own party.

Abbott faced a barrage of criticism, including from Karen Pollock, the chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, who wrote: “Ignoring the existence and impact of anti-Jewish racism harms Jews, diminishes our experience, and distorts the truth. It is so important that those of us from minority groups unite against the haters and call it out together.”

At a reception after a BBC Prom in 2016, a man I knew only vaguely came up to me and said that he had seen me in a film with the prominent British human rights lawyer Philippe Sands called My Nazi Legacy.

In it, I ask the son of a prominent Nazi Gauleiter (regional party leader) how he justifies his father’s guilt. He says he does not believe that his father is guilty.

My accuser looked me straight in the eyes and said, “I saw you in that film and you should have gone into the oven. You understand, into the oven.” No ambiguity, no mercy, no doubt. Here I was, face-to-face with racism.

I am not Jewish, but my spine turned to ice. In all honesty, I have never been so scared.

Jews do not belong to a race but to a culture, but that does not mean they are not the victims of racism. Diane Abbott, like Whoopi Goldberg before her, equates racism with skin colour and not with prejudice against a minority.

In 2022, Goldberg claimed on the US television show The View that “The Holocaust isn’t about race …it is about man’s inhumanity to man.”

When challenged by one of her co-panellists who said that it was about white supremacy, Goldberg added, “These are two white groups of people.. you are missing the point the minute you turn it into race.”

Perhaps they both should have visited Alderney: The Holocaust on British Soil – the shocking and horrific recent exhibition at Cromwell Place in London, to understand exactly what happened to the Jews during the Holocaust.

Artist Piers Secunda has spent the last three years examining the German occupation of the Channel Islands in microscopic detail. Secunda has previously worked on the destruction of cultures by the Taliban in Afghanistan and ISIS in Iraq.

In his recent show, Secunda focuses on the two German concentration camps in Britain, located on the tiny Channel island of Alderney.

Three miles long and one mile wide, the island’s 1500 inhabitants left by boat for the mainland an hour or so before the Germans arrived in 1940.

For the duration of the war, Alderney became an island of death with extraordinary defence fortifications against Britain built by many thousands of slave labourers transported from France, Belgium, the USSR and elsewhere.

No one knows how many Jews and political prisoners were murdered on Alderney – one estimate puts it at just under 5000.

The exhibition was a shock and revelation to all those who saw it. The centre of such violence and carnage was a small island that hardly anyone has visited and barely heard of.

Secunda’s research has revealed a wall used for many of the executions that took place during the German occupation of the island.  It is now in a builder’s yard with bricks and planks stacked against it.

Surely it would be fitting to have that wall as the much talked about British Holocaust memorial rather than a merely symbolic structure near the Houses of Parliament in London because it was on Alderney that the Holocaust came to the UK.

The last production of the season at the English National Opera illustrated the whole point about racism and grief that neither Abbott nor Goldberg managed to seize. That prejudice in its many forms is universal and we are all vulnerable. That the ensuing grief is corrosive and relentless.

Symphony of Sorrowful Songs by the Polish composer Henryk Górecki was a truly powerful evening. The brave decision to perform it in Polish instead of an English translation made it even more striking.

Written in 1977, the symphony is divided into three movements. The first is a fifteenth-century lament of the Virgin Mary, the second a message written on the wall of a Gestapo prison cell and the third a mother searching for her lost soldier son killed by the Germans during the Silesian uprising.

The stage was bare and parse, with a cast of a lone soprano, Nicole Chevalier and a half dozen actors. Their performance was raw and emotional. The music was insistent and exquisite.

Symphony of Sorrowful Songs was written to commemorate those murdered during the Holocaust, but there were hints of the war in Ukraine when the stage was suffused with blue and yellow light.

Again, it was a production that mattered and a fitting end to Stuart Murphy’s groundbreaking five years at the ENO. He will be missed.

Photograph courtesy of Neil Howard. Published under a Creative Commons license.