NATIVITY

  • Rosa-Johan Uddoh

  • Presented by — Workplace

  • Rosa-Johan Uddoh, Here I Am, Baby, digital collage, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Workplace
Close up of a collage depicting numerous African figures dressed as Kings and in other pieces of finery.

Summary

NATIVITY is a short epic tale about Black performance in the West by three kings who’ve seen it all. This new performance continues Uddoh’s practice-based research into characters in popular culture and their effects on self-formation.

Performance Description

NATIVITY charts one of the most frequent and historic representations of a Black character by White people since the 15th Century — that of the character ‘Balthazar’ — the ‘African King’ who, according to Christian tradition, visited the baby Jesus at his birth. Balthazar was a vital part of one of the most popular motifs in Western art history: the Nativity, and always the best dressed. You might recognise him today from Christmas cards and school Nativity plays still seemingly mandatory part of UK state school curriculum.

In this way the performance begins at the ‘nativity’ of Blackness — the ‘advent’ of the construction of Blackness by the white imagination at the moment of their encounter with darker skinned people. Each chapter in the text is inspired by the artist’s archival research into Black presences in Europe, as well as personal experiences of being asked to perform ‘blackness’ in both theatrical and everyday settings for a white gaze. This is a performance about how performance produces identity.

Outline

The performance is to be performed at a gallery or art museum or institution, amongst existing art works. The performance consists of a script read aloud by three performers, each as one of three ‘Balthazars’.

At the start of the performance, the red carpet is rolled out by the performer and used to demarcate the space for the intervention to happen.

Most of the script is memorised, but some is read from the tea-stained scroll. A written script, video and photographic documentation will be provided for details of sequence and movement.

Conditions of Performance

The performance should be performed as directed on script.

This work should be performed by three Black performers. They can be of any age and gender, providing they are able to read the script. They do not need to be trained actors or professional actors: though they should feel confident to memorise parts of the script and read aloud.

One of the performers should be the artist Rosa-Johan Uddoh where possible, but also propositions for other performers are allowable in adherence with the guidelines set out in this section.

The performers should rehearse in advance a number of times so they feel comfortable with and that budget allows for. Any performer should be paid fairly for their participation. A minimum fee of £250 per day for rehearsals and performances (this is a 2022 rate, to be adjusted for inflation over time).

Video documentation will be provided as a guide for movement direction, but this can be built upon by the performers according to their particular skills and the site in which the performance is performed.

The performer should be offered adequate time and space for rehearsal and access to archival material of the original performance. The name of the performers must be credited on any and all print and online materials relating to a re-staging of the Performance at all times.

Performers should wear crowns (provided) and their favourite outfits (defined by the performers).

If necessary, the performer’s voice may be amplified, according to the needs of the specific space.

Live captioning or printed transcripts should be made available for accessibility, for those audience members who require it.

Documentation

Each staging of this work should be photographed, with at least one commemorating photograph sent to the artist as a souvenir for her archive of Black performance.

Script

Red carpet is rolled out over table and floor by gallery workers as BALTHAZAR 1 crouches in foetal position on the floor wrapped in ‘amniotic sac’ (an iridescent plastic sheet) and Christmas lights, pulsating. BALTHAZAR 2 is sat at the head of the table. Audience is encouraged to gather round the scene.

To begin BALTHAZAR 1 sings ‘Silent Night, Holy Night, All Is Calm, All is dark’. They then begin making a sound of a heartbeat with their mouth, at which point BALTHAZAR 3 walks into the room.

BALTHAZAR 1
Boom boom, boom boom…

BALTHAZAR 3 strides into room, gesturing to BALTHAZAR 1

BALTHAZAR 1

Pre-nativity tiny foetus
swaddled in the little sac,
all is calm, all is dark,
curled up cosy and warm.

Medieval foetus,
you don’t even have a soul yet,
you have to wait another forty days and forty nights,
even the Church at this point agrees
(shh not even the anti-abortion movement is born).
Swim, swim, tumble and turn freeform baby,
before you maybe peep
Through the membrane:

‘What shall we call you…?’
‘Gaspar?’
‘Does life start at conception, race, gender, or name?’

‘Melchior?’
‘Or maybe Casper?’
‘Oh little baby could that be you?’

Balthazar throws off polythene and lights. They emerges with tea-stained scroll. Which they read off.

All Balthazars

One.

BALTHAZAR 1

[In the style of a children’s storyteller… think Floella Benjamin or international equivalent]

In the beginning, they did the Nativity. Everyone in it was pink, well, the main characters anyway: Mary,
Joseph, a whole chorus of angels and a baby. The baby, they said, was the son of God, or as they call him at Church, ‘the King of Kings’. To prove it, three rich, glamorous and earthly kings came all the way from ‘The East’ to see the baby when it was born. These kings worshipped the baby and gave him really expensive gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. The thinking was that if even these rich, powerful, grown men worshipped the baby, then we should too.

[Becoming more and more ‘sassy’]

Over a few hundred years, after yearly re-enactments of the story, most Christians would agree that the first
king to visit the baby came from Europe. The second came from ‘Somewhere in Asia’. No kings came from the Americas or Australasia as (luckily), the Christians hadn’t found out about them yet. Despite his lack of skin pigment or, more likely, because of it, the third king to visit the baby was assigned by the Christians as ‘Ruler of Africa’: Balthazar. And so, the story went for a thousand years: Three White Men.

Yet, as white Balthazar knelt, inappropriately turbaned, behind his two colleagues, another figure arrived into
being. Creeping onto the canvas on camelback came Balthazar’s servant, a Black man. For years he knelt in service to a representational problem — as a token dark-skinned associate to prove white Balthazar’s African-ness. Balthazar’s servant peeps over shoulders, waiting for the Renaissance, and then, suddenly, in the fifteenth Century he strikes: ‘Because blackness as a sign is never enough!’

Balthazar’s servant snatches the gift of myrrh from the hands of his white master, and assumes his name and
position too. Balthazar becomes a Black man. Scripture says he prophesises death.

All Balthazars

Two.

BALTHAZAR 2

[In the style of a knowing acquaintance in a tavern, showing you the ropes. Perhaps ‘Black best friend’.]

To become Balthazar, you must hang out in your local tavern. Eventually, you’ll be approached by some excitable
painter, Van Aelst, Velåzquez, Reubens or an intern from the workshop. They’ll sidle up exclaiming:

BALTHAZAR 1

‘Hail, blackamoore!’

BALTHAZAR 2

or

BALTHAZAR 3

‘What Othello sits beside me?’

BALTHAZAR 2

or

BALTHAZAR 1

‘Look mama, a Negro!’

BALTHAZAR 2

or

BALTHAZAR 3

‘You have just the perfect complexion!’

BALTHAZAR 2

etc… etc. And it’s right there in the act of turning from your brown ale to meet their greeting that you become that subject — not for the first time you become that Black friend, you become Balthazar. They’ll invite you to their studio. And you’ll turn and you’ll say:

BALTHAZAR 1

‘What is the fee?’

BALTHAZAR 2

In the light of the studio you do The Nativity. When you get to their studio you bring out your little bag. You pull out a couple items you pinched from the last mug you sat for — a turban, a little pearl earring, a cutlass. They always get excited when you bring that out — start talking about ‘authenticity’, how you’re the real deal. And you are — you’re Balthazar, African King. Scripture says you prophesise death.

ALL BALTHAZARS

Three

BALTHAZAR 3

[Delivered as a perfume advert by a feminist popstar. Think Beyoncé meets ‘J’adore Dior’ adverts starring Charlize Theron.]

Life is full of turning points. Depending on which way you turn, different worlds come into view. Sometimes we might (mis)recognise ourselves in the address of an artist, a photographer, a stylist or a policeman. We might turn to a name other than the one we usually use; out of ease, curiosity or exhaustion. By becoming Balthazar, you follow a path that’s been walked by many others before. The repeated act of following means we tread over footprints left in our forebears’ wake, until it doesn’t seem like we’re on a path at all. We can no longer see the point from which we emerged. When it comes to putting it on paper long after the fact, the path we travel seems natural, not constructed carefully over thousands of years by a monsoon of socio-political factors. And so, when people ask how you got to who you are, you simply make up an excuse — you were following, just following, a-following a star.

ALL BALTHAZARS

Four

BALTHAZAR 2

[In the style of a knowing acquaintance in a tavern, showing you the ropes. Perhaps ‘Black best friend’.]

To become Balthazar, you take your chances on a merchant’s ship leaving the Cape of Good Hope. You sail all the way to Amsterdam and settle near bustling Jodenbreestraat. You’re quite lonely at first, but then, while attending the christening of a neighbour’s new-born, you meet Francisca. Francisca is a warm and generous radical who lives in a basement just round the corner.66 From here, she runs a kind of hostel for black Amsterdammers, helping them find their feet. ‘You should come round for dinner some time’, she says. A couple days later, at the dinner you meet Hester and Dina. You’ve never met anyone like them and you’re keen to impress. That’s when you learn about this Portuguese ‘sugar trader’ who lives round the corner.You all get riled up, rightfully so, and decide to confront him. And what better day to rise up than this Sunday: Easter Sunday!68 Out you all are, a group of seven of you, and you can feel the adrenalin running and it’s the most alive you’ve felt since you arrived. You look around at the angry and laughing faces and feel so happy to have found your people again so far from home. You cheer! You all cheer! A comrade’s hand slaps down on your shoulder.

BALTHAZAR 1

Hey Bastiaan, it looks like that white dude’s sketching you… do you know him?

BALTHAZAR 2

At the chiaroscuro creep in the window:

BALTHAZAR 3

Hey! Hey! Don’t watch face!

BALTHAZAR 2

In the depths of the dark ages you do The Nativity. You don’t really get a choice mate. Doesn’t matter that you’re actually a Muslim, or that you’re literally part of an anti-racist movement at the heart of the Dutch empire. That you and your rag-tag gang of medieval Afro-Dutch ladies are peeping over the gates at the house of a sugar planter so that you can spit at him. That the thing you’re holding isn’t myrrh but a big rock that at some point in a fit of euphoria, you consider chucking through the window. Rembrandt’s got you in his sketchbook now.69 Balthazar becomes a Black man, scripture says he prophesises death.

ALL BALTHAZARS

Five

BALTHAZAR 1

[In the style of sassy storyteller getting more and more sassy. Dragging scroll behind them as they walk around]

Before Christians knew about Africans they assumed everything West of Britain and South of Cape Bojador was either under the sea or too hot to inhabit. The only reason, Christians thought, that the Christian regions were held above water was because of God’s ‘Divine Grace’.70 The Christian lay people, who were just about treading water under the tyrannical reign of the baby and his bachelors (The Church), were pretty vexed when African immigrants started to appear; heathen, thriving and worst of all… not soaking wet. The dry emergence of Africans was a threat not only to Christendom’s theology, but its entire social and political order too. First, the Christians tried to cast the Africans out. But when that didn’t work they cast them in a supporting role in the Nativity play — just like in the Marvel multiverse of today.

What they didn’t understand is that mimicry is at once resemblance and menace. In order to make Balthazar fit in the story they had to give him one of the gifts. I think Christians in the West let the Black man have myrrh because they weren’t really sure what it was. Gold they obviously understood. Frankincense…‘erm some kind of perfume isn’t it?’ When it came to myrrh — they didn’t know so they didn’t care — like ‘ew-your-lunchbox-smells-funny’ vibes from the Christians.

[Stamping on tea-stained scroll — it is a symbol of western supremacy!] So yeah, I do think it was by accident, and out of ignorance, that white Christians had Balthazar, the only Black man in the show, bring a potent symbol of impending death, to the cradle of Western civilisation. And that subsequently, every Christmas for over five hundred years they’d have little Black and brown kids re-enact this primal act of rebellion in front of a crowd of proudly camcordered African dads.

ALL BALTHAZARS

Six

BALTHAZAR 3

[In the style of Beyoncé giving a stadium talk on feminism, or Kamala Harris giving a vice presidential address or Mark Zuckerberg unveiling a new iPhone. Professional Black person.]

All human orders, from the smallest society of nomadic hunter-gatherers, to the large-scale societies of Egypt, China, Greece and Rome, have mapped their social rules onto the stars, or imagined supernatural beings, or often both. But, as humans, almost as soon as we do this mapping we repress the whole process. We forget we authored these rules, that we wrote their corresponding mythologies, and we pretend the social order has come down to us puny humans through the ‘extrahuman agency of supernatural imaginary beings.’ This makes the rules seem more inevitable, unchangeable, and our behaviour more determined.

BALTHAZAR 2

Even in our now secular order, the extrahuman agency on which our authorship is now projected is no longer supernatural, but rather the imagined entity of Race.

BALTHAZAR 3

And that’s what you think about as you look up at the fireworks breaking across the Croydon smog on New Year’s Eve, 1999.

At the dawn of the new millennium, we did The Nativity. They talked about multiculturalism as if it was new. As if we hadn’t sat for the Visitation for years: Where do you think Rembrandt found such a handsome model? For God’s sake, incongruously in grandma’s wrapper I’m swaddled; by pink teachers, cast as a visitor in the borough I was born. I peep over shoulders, waiting for a renaissance we’ll never learn our place in. Well, Balthazar became a Black woman, she’s here to deliver revenge. And for my first act, I’ll take a nap.

ALL BALTHAZARS

Seven

BALTHAZAR 2

[Fast-paced, dreamlike]

I’m walking along the coast of the Ceredigion, the sea is on my right and there are cliffs of beautiful red slate to my left. The waves are crashing in a satisfying way and I’m walking along the pebbled beach wrapped up in a coat and scarf. On the left up on the cliff is a house, my dream house. It’s a perfect example of early modernist architecture, white with ribbon windows, built like an ocean liner. Straight out of Poirot. I walk up a sandy winding path to reach the front door of the house, which is surrounded by an arched trellis of pink flowers. I knock on the front door and it opens abruptly before I have a chance to take back my fist. Stuart Hall pulls open the door and screams:

BALTHAZAR 1

[Shouting]

DON’T TRUST THE MEDIA AND ABOVE ALL DON’T TAKE IT SITTING DOWN!

BALTHAZAR 2

I wake with a start and shake my comrades Caspar and Melchior awake: We can’t go back to Herod’s palace — we must return by another route!

ALL BALTHAZARS

Eight

BALTHAZAR 1

Get up mate we’re going to the protest. We’re meeting the others at Pret at noon, you’re already late, but we’ll wait. Yeah, I’m swaddled — it’s time for renaissance. It’s a nativity, but not the one you think.

Equipment

  • The following materials will be provided upon acquisition

  • A script
  • Three crowns for the performers to wear
  • A ‘red carpet’, 0.6m × 7.5m
  • One tea-stained scroll for read element, approx. 0.3m × 1m
  • One set of battery operated multicoloured Christmas lights with pulsating option
  • One ‘amniotic sac’ — a thin, iridescent sheet of translucent plastic
  • The following additional materials should be provided for the performance

  • A table and three stools for performers to sit around
  • Additional information

  • The three crowns for the performers to wear and the tea-stained scroll are designed by the artist: should those need replacing due to wear and tear, the artist will provide a guideline on how to remake them.
  • All other props, including a red carpet, one set of battery operated multicolored Christmas lights with pulsating option and one amniotic sac — a thin, iridescent sheet of translucent plastic can be replaced if damaged by purchasing the closest items that can be found in the location where the performance will take place.

NATIVITY