Arts Review: I ride in colour and soft focus, no longer anywhere

Dir. Last Yearz Interesting Negro / Jamila Johnson-Small, Tramway, 1st June

I was apprehensive about writing this review, initially. Having embarrassingly little experience with live theatre, writing about it seemed another challenge entirely.  I was lucky enough to attend a performance at the Take Me Somewhere festival, which was conveniently based at Tramway, a venue that I could get to in five minutes from where I live. The performance in question was I ride in colour and soft focus, no longer anywhere, a solo project by Jamila Johnson-Small. I stress the feeling of lucky here – after a particularly debilitating mental health episode, I felt cemented to the confines of my home. It wasn’t until I read more about this performance and Jamila herself that I decided to push myself and see it. When you’re so used to teetering on the edge of collapse, sudden bursts of energy and excitement to seek things out can feel miraculous. The work dealt with negotiating identity as a black, queer body, and moving through the world with a pressure to comply with society. After watching the performance in person, further readings became clear to me; intrusive thoughts, trauma, the body, and prioritising yourself and sense of identity over the comfort of others. Afterwards, I felt relieved but above all, I felt seen. In a performance of minimal spoken word, Johnson-Small articulated the complex and contradictory feelings that I realized I had been bottling up for some time.

The nature of Johnson-Small’s performance – a mix of trance-like sound-design, trippy video art and live performance – was almost challenging to recall. This was initially distressing to me, another reminder of my broken clock brain that chips away at my memory, making me feel slow and decaying. But speaking with other audience members after the show, it seemed this was a common feeling.  The sequence lulls you in as soon as you arrived in the theatre, with layered vocals echoing around the room, church-like. A striking feature of Johnson-Small’s performance was the use of sensory deprivation. Anxiety pushed me to an empty row by myself, but my worries soon fell away as the entire theatre was swallowed by a comforting, enveloping darkness. The performance was at once beautifully meditative and sonically exciting; I felt myself negotiating the desire to dance with the desire to cry. Small herself was electric to watch move across the stage, and then later, among the audience.  

Quickly, dancing on the spot became a visual motif in the performance, the visual repeated on the big screen at the back of the stage. On screen, Johnson-Small’s body was figuratively drawn and quartered, her limbs separated through CGI and seemingly dancing on their own. I read this as the possessive and objectifying eye so frequently cast on black female bodies, but the resilient and carefree aura that Johnson-Small possesses seemed to transcend gaze. This was her space.

Overall I’m tremendously glad I got to watch this performance, as my first foray into writing about theatre and an ultimately therapeutic experience.

Presented by Tramway in association with Take Me Somewhere.


[Naomi Gessesse]



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