Not Bound Within – my journey so far by Naomi Cortes

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The Albany has continued to support my work as a Black female playwright and my latest work Not Bound Within will have its play reading in October for Black History Month.

Why be a writer?

I want to amplify, loud hail, create a battle cry for the unheard and the unseen. Those invisible beings who society has forgotten or overlooked. Those like me.

I look at the world around me and wonder how do women of colour continue? Every day is a battle to hold ourselves upright in a society that’s trying to push us over, flatten us and extinguish our fires. The world never tires of telling us we are irrelevant, unimportant and have no value. But we continue to blaze.

And I hear the fires of those women, their pain, their cries of anger when they are threatened, their frustration at being marginalised – and their endurance. And all of this I devote to my work. To my voice.

So, the story of Not Bound Within is about Venus, a young Black woman, in the middle of a crisis. She is fighting with the world and feels she is losing. She is in the darkest of places and we can all relate to this, because at some time in our lives we have been there. Those feelings of helplessness, vulnerability and loneliness are overwhelming. And in Venus’s intense state of mind, the Hottentot Venus – Saartjie Baartman appears. An African woman who was exhibited as a ’freak’ in the early 1800’s and who is an important historical character from Black British History whose legacy still resonates today.

What follows is a story of sexual degradation and economic exploitation, as these two women Venus and Saartjie battle with their pasts, present and their unknown futures.

Why choose theatre?

It chose me. As a mixed race child growing up in Gravesend, Kent with my devout church-going Jamaican mother I was painfully shy. I didn’t speak to anybody, didn’t look anybody in the eye and never spoke up. My mother took me to a Saturday morning drama class – hoping that I would find a little confidence, I suppose. When she came to collect me, she asked the tutor how I’d been. He explained that I hadn’t moved from the safety spot of hiding behind the red curtains for the whole of the class!

I discovered the world of theatre as a shy bully-fodder teenager, who tried to fit in and to my embarrassment and subsequent shame, didn’t succeed. My mother had moved us to London and when I was at Eltham Green School I began to find my voice. I was invited to join the Bob Hope Theatre, now known as Eltham Little Theatre, and performed in Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle with Jude Law. We were as shy as each other. And I remember choosing drama as one of my GCSE options because I was fed up of being bullied, having very little confidence and wanting more. I guess I became fed up of hiding behind the red velvet curtains.

Finding an outlet for my voice is a huge part of this journey and my writing is central. Not Bound Within is a multi-layered encounter which demands to be placed centre stage. It is layered with intricate characters that delight and frustrate, poetic language which absorbs its audience into its cosmos and reveals fascinating themes which entertain, disturb and affect.

I write who I am and place it on stage. Reflected in my writing you see me, a complex and fascinating woman who chooses to exposes her vulnerabilities initially on the page and through collaboration onto the stage.

And then I sit back and watch my magic unfurl. The spell of an actor as she wrestles with the intricacies of poetry and decides to reveal the character’s vulnerabilities, the director’s conjuring as they imbue the themes with their knowledge and decide to take a chance.

And finally the audience. Who have chosen to not have an easy night of nice and gentle theatre but have entered into an agreement, a pact of exchanging, to sit for the duration and see where this fun fair ride takes them.

A genuine voice?

My writing has begun to develop a responsive audience who share with me their feeling of empowerment, seeing stories about Black women, written by a Black woman and performed by Black women in the theatre.

Over the years, I have heard the Black community say to me theatre is not for them and it’s so disheartening. Before she died, I took my mother to see James Baldwin’s, the Amen Corner at the National Theatre and she looked around at the audience and commented, saying how it was full of white people. I smiled and reassured her, saying there will be more on stage but welcome to my world. She loved the show. She joined in with the scripture quotations, the hymns and the Amen’s. But she was right, it was full of white people.

Many Black women feel alienated from the Arts and believe theatre is not for them. So, my work has to continue engaging all women of colour because they have told me they are desperate to see themselves on stage – desperate to see women from their own backgrounds telling their stories, desperate to be a voice which is heard in the theatre.

Our history is either erased or told by others and yet theatre is made for telling everybody’s story. That’s what I’m told and I believe it. My route to the stage was not conventional and for that, I feel slightly behind in the race. I was never any good at sports! We all know the cross-country stories. But I’m in this race forever. Theatre is my world. It is a craft I have developed and continue to share with others. As a writer and actor, a young actors director and drama educational specialist.

So, I must tell these stories because the audiences are there and are just waiting for my invitation!

Not Bound Within is at Canada Water Theatre on Wednesday 11 October, 7.30pm

Tickets are £5 and can be bought here.

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