"Rent Party is an unapologetically queer, black, poor, fun, filthy, daring, dreaming knees-up"
Writer and performer Cheryl Martin explains the inspiration for this thrilling new show
Rent Parties: African-American folks in the Harlem Renaissance back in the 1920s and 30s, faced with inflated rents [black people were charged much more than the going rate] and deflated pay checks [black people, then as now, got paid much less than the going rate], came up with a typically creative and fun solution - they got their friends to come into their apartments and houses and entertain guests, to whom they charged admission – with food and drink costing extra - and paid their rent for the month from the proceeds.
They were immensely popular; loads of blues songs were written about them; musicians like Fats Waller started their careers playing at them. If you want to sample the authentic atmosphere, watch Fats and friends in the video of This Joint Is Jumpin’ .
I had the idea to create a Manchester Rent Party about five years ago, because the financial crash upended twenty steady years of employment and I got to see for myself what it felt like not to be able to pay the bills. At the time it was one of many ideas, and it might never have come to anything if Darren Pritchard hadn’t asked me to join a project he’d begun for Homotopia.
Homotopia in Liverpool wanted to commission a tribute to black gay iconic poet Langston Hughes, who loved Rent Parties, wrote poems about them, and collected the little business cards with welcoming rhymes people circulated to advertise them:
“You can wake up the Devil, raise all Hell; / No one will be there to go home and tell.”
Now that sounds like a party. You get an idea of how wild they were from lyrics like: “Check your razors and your guns” in Bessie Smith’s Gimme A Pigfoot. Don’t think ours’ll be quite that crazy.
I’d known Darren, a dancer and choreographer, since I’d done workshops with him when he was 14 and a member of Manchester’s Contact Youth Theatre. It was run then by Richard Gregory and Renny O’Shea, who went on to create Quarantine, an unconventional local theatre company who believe in starting shows with the people in the room. They’ve been very influential on both Darren and me.
We craved – we still crave – stories about black British people onstage, and since both we and our producer Jayne Compton were LGBTQ, we wanted to see black and gay stories on stage. And we started with the people in the room – our cast, who are all black or mixed-heritage, and almost all gay.
So, our Rent Party became a 21st century Austerity Britain celebration of being an unashamedly, unapologetically queer, black, poor, and inventive, talented, fun-loving, nerdy, metaphysical and mystical, raunchy, filthy, daring and dreaming knees-up. And especially because Darren grew up in a racially-mixed working-class world where everyone could feel at home. Though most of the cast is LGBTQ, a couple of straight black women are dancers in there, too, talking about what life as a member of the precariat feels like for them.
It’s taken about three years and several different versions of the show, through several different research and development sharings with the public, to come to the show folks will see this Christmas at Sheffield’s Crucible Studio.
And the audience will meet:
Stuart: “The fiercest pony-tail-wearing, hat-bearing, weave-flailing diva this side of the bread line – come share your dollar with me. ‘Cause black lives matter. We’re not just for Christmas”
AJ: “A self-professed geek. Part of an Afro-Futuristic movement”, wielding a "magical Melanin Shield -- real black power”
Kam and Lenai, in the Lip-Sync Battle of the Century, “The House of Opulence vs The House of Ghetto”
Jason, star of Starlight Express, roller-skating his way from Germany to Calais
We wanted it to be true. And it is: the cast tell you about their real lives, the good, the bad, the ugly and the funny. Kam dreams of starring in Sister Act while working at ASDA to support her son. Lenai comes from a matriarchy and wonders how she’ll pay back the tuition fees her relatives helped her with to fund dance school. Stuart re-lives the moment he realised what being mixed-heritage really means. AJ needs his boyfriend’s help to learn to love the sea. Jason struggles after being left destitute by an abusive boyfriend. It’s a real singing, dancing, heartfelt extravaganza. We were lucky with our cast, who all come from the North, and most of them from Manchester.
As I write this, we’re a week away from our first preview. Audiences liked all the previous incarnations: I can only hope they’ll love the full-blown, down-and-dirty, in-your-face, delicate, meditative, raucous and stunning show: Rent Party.
Rent Party is co-written by Cheryl Martin and Darren Pritchard and directed by Darren Pritchard
12 - 23 December 2017, Sheffield Crucible Studio
Tickets available here: sheffieldtheatres.co.uk/whats-on/rent-party/dates
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