BEHIND THE SCENES - Toni Blackwell: ‘I want something good to come out of George Floyd's death’

photo: Sjoerd Derine

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From June 25 to June 30, our new generation of talent will present themselves during the be-CONNECTED. Are you curious about the creative outbursts of our students online? Read the interview with Toni Blackwell (Theatre in Education) about When we Breathe and you will already get a taste. Visit the online be-CONNECTED festival and create an account!

‘I want something good to come out of George Floyd's death’
Theatre maker Toni Blackwell (27) about When We Breathe

‘I can't breathe.’ The video of the murder of George Floyd set off a wave of protest worldwide. In her graduation performance When We Breathe, theatre teacher Toni Blackwell (27) shows what happens when six black men can breathe. A rollercoaster of dance, movement, spoken word and sharp dialogues.

How did the murder of George Floyd affect you personally?

‘I lived in America when I was young. The intention was to stay there, but things turned out differently. When George Floyd was murdered, I looked at my brother and all I could think was: what if we had stayed there? Then I would have had a very different brother. Or maybe he wouldn't have been there anymore.’

Why didn't you want to see the video of his death?
‘You saw that the video went viral, was shared endlessly on Facebook and other social media. I think: if we keep sharing these kinds of images, we will once again be raising a generation that associates the black body with violence. I don't want to reinforce that connotation. That's why I didn't want to see the video at all, and I haven’t seen it to this day.’

Aren’t you burying your head in the sand?
‘No, certainly not. Don’t get me wrong, it is important that there is knowledge, and apparently these kinds of images are necessary to bring about global awareness. But with my performance, I wanted to be part of a different movement. Where is your strength in this day and age? Your talent? How can you be a hero? What happens when we do breathe? I couldn’t make anything else.’

How did you go about it?
‘I worked with six boys, black boys. That was a conscious choice. All six boys are very outspoken about themselves and express themselves strongly on the subject. As a theatre maker, in the first period I always work with my actors to collect material. There is no hierarchy, no right or wrong. The cooperation was great! We were in a good flow the whole time and the basis of the atmosphere was always humour. It resulted in some very beautiful images, not all of which I could use. But by working this way, I also automatically create a responsibility for the material with the actors. The performance is theirs from the start.’

What makes When We Breathe a must-see?
‘The performance is real, raw and authentic. A dynamic alternation of dance, movement, spoken word and sharp dialogue. The actors make it special. The performance is about their stories. The dynamics you see are the dynamics they have created with each other. As a spectator, you are taken on a rollercoaster ride of portraits, sometimes calm and vulnerable, sometimes tough and dangerous. The piece makes you think and makes you laugh.’

What is your drive as a drama teacher?
‘I want to give space to empowerment in my profession. Space to show strength and talent within the framework of oppression and to tell stories with it. Something good has to come from the death of George Floyd, otherwise it has been for nothing.’

Are you going to do more with this theme?
‘Yes, I'm going to work on When We Breathe: Part 2. What I made with these guys is a concept I want to explore again with a larger group. In short: stay tuned!’

photo: Sjoerd Derine