Chant Down Babylon: we chat to curators Tobi Kyeremanteng & Ruthie Osterman

In a celebration of Black and Brown lives and experiences, Skin Deep’s Nkenna Akunna chats to Tobi and Ruthie on the creation of Babylon Festival.

In a refreshing change of pace, one of London’s most prestigious theatres is currently hosting a roster of almost exclusively black and brown artists. Babylon Festival, curated by cultural producer Tobi Kyeremanteng, is now in full swing at the Bush Theatre, and the last few days have seen a live tapings of The Receipts podcast and The N-Erd Council podcast, sets by Touching Bass and Nabihah Iqbal, and your very own Skin Deep’s sold out Sonic Transmissions with Moses Boyd. I caught up with Tobi and Ruthie Osterman, whose show Babylon Beyond Borders will be on at the Bush next week.

Nkenna Akunna: Hi, Tobi and Ruthie! Can you tell our readers who you are and how you came to be a part of this project?

Ruthie Osterman: I’ve been at the Bush Theatre for the last 18 months as part of the ‘Up Next Program’ learning about, and executing, the work of an artistic director.

NA: What’s the ‘Up Next Programme’?

Tobi Kyeremanteng: It’s a program between Artistic Directors of the Future, Bush Theatre, and Battersea Arts Centre that places artistic leaders from BAME backgrounds into these buildings to learn more about leadership, and essentially train artistic directors. It’s about addressing the lack of diversity in the arts, specifically in theatre buildings by looking at what the barriers are. There are three boys at the Battersea Arts Centre, two of us here at the Bush shadowing Madani Younis who was the artistic director at the Bush until recently and the senior management team. We’re learning about running an organisation, about what that means, and in the process, both buildings host their own takeovers, so in a sense, we become the artistic leaders during that time.

NA: So your takeover is both Babylon Festival this week, and the show Babylon Beyond Borders next week.

RO: We started by discussing what we would like to do, particularly with our shared interest in the diaspora and immigration, and we came up with Babylon. After decoding the word, deciding what it meant to us, we each decided to explore the different things we were interested in. Tobi curated the festival, and I’m directing the show, Babylon Beyond Borders. Babylon Beyond Borders is an international collaboration between four theatres in four countries – Harlem stage in New York, Pequeno Ato in Sao Paulo, Market Theatre in Johannesburg and Bush Theatre in London.

NA: So the show is created in all the spaces at the same time? Through live-stream?

RO: Yes! The idea came from my very deep interest in intercultural dialogue and in creating connections between the local community and the international. Both of us are very interested in working with our communities and seeing the theatre as a public space.

N: How does the show explore the ideas around ‘Babylon’?

RO: I see London as a modern Babylon, and this show is about this location and the other locations speaking to each other. We use the biblical text, the Tower of Babel, and we deconstruct it through the play, particularly the idea of confusion. We use the four local contemporary towers: so Grenfell tower blocks here in London, the Twin Towers in New York, an occupation building in Sao Paulo, and Ponte Towers in Johannesburg. Through these four towers, we share the stories of our communities. What do we have in common? What is totally different? We’re not coming up with an answer, we really just ask these questions and check the possibilities of this encounter.

NA: And Tobi, can you tell us about how your interpretation of  Babylon flourished into the festival?

TK: I think we have always had this kind of discussion about “local, national and international” and for us, what are the things that link the kind of people that we want to reach and want to talk to. We both have very different experiences in terms of movement, migration and diaspora and what that means in our different contexts, and mine is localized within London. I wanted to produce something about London culture as opposed to British culture or UK-wide culture, something very localized in a particular area with a specific demographic of people and how they, specifically, experience the city.

NA: How did you go about curating the featured artists? How do those decisions look at diaspora in specific ways?

T: We started this program in 2017, and a lot of the conversations we had then centred around the question: what is the world going to look like by 2019? It was also the beginning of Brexit so there was definitely many unknowns. For me it was about looking at the very specific climate we were in, particularly in London, and the demographics that were largely being affected by everything that was happening. It was also about deciding that I didn’t want to do something that was placed in trauma. A theatre is a Babylon in its own little way and I didn’t want to do something that was based around that trauma. Looking at the wider place of theatre and being like ok, what would it look like to have a consistent space that is taken over by these demographics completely? What would that space look like? What would it feel like? Who would be in there? Thinking about the local community, Shepherds Bush as well is so diverse. The road that we’re on alone is super diverse so there’s so much that we could have done but I think for me just looking at the past two years, at all the things that have happened, specifically to black and brown people with Grenfell and Windrush, it was like actually I need a space of joy for these communities and I don’t know where to go for that that is consistent, and so I was just trying to build that. I want new audiences and new people to come into this building and feel like it’s theirs for that period of time, and hopefully onwards as well.

N: And so with that in mind, to close out, who should be taking up this space right now at the Bush?

T: I want people that don’t care about theatre to be in the building because I think that was the main reason why I was like: there’s going to be no theatre in this festival or what people consider to be theatre. There’s stuff that I consider theatre, and then there’s because I wanted people that don’t really care about that to come into the building because there’s something in here that they’ll love.

N: Is there anything else you want to say or include?

R&T: We are really supported by an amazing team, really. I couldn’t even call this my project, you know? We couldn’t do it alone. It’s not to take for granted.

Babylon Festival will be running until Sunday 17th February. For further information or tickets, check out the Bush Theatre’s website. 

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