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‘Swinging the Lens’: In conversation with Adjoa Andoh

Adjoa Andoh, a ground-breaking actor and director, known most recently for her role as Lady Danbury on Netflix show Bridgerton is the 2022 – 2023 Cameron Mackintosh Professor of Contemporary Theatre at St Catherine’s college. She will be holding a series of ‘in conversations’ and workshops addressing key issues of diversity and inclusion while making work at Oxford, in her time as Professor.

‘Swinging the Lens’, the name of her production company, encapsulates all that she is aiming to do.

If we think of a lens as our perspective on the world, she’s asking whose stories are getting told, and acting to change that, so that new stories, new perspectives, new lenses on reality are given the space to be heard too.

I sat down with Adjoa following her second workshop and we talked about her aims, belonging, role models and I reflected on the transformative impact her work had had on me in such a small space of time.

We started with a moment in her inaugural lecture where she spoke about ‘class, race and poverty’ still being key determinants of opportunity in our society and the stories that are told of ‘people like them’. I resonated with what she said. When I took my seat at the beginning of her first workshop, I was at one of my lowest points. In the weeks leading up to the workshops I had had someone turn to me in a tutorial and ask, ‘what would a working-class person like you know about that?’; and sat in my university kitchen, someone told me that ‘people like you should be made to wear a special commonest of the common gown’. Just two examples of the multiple explicit and implicit moments built up over my two years here that told me, loud and clear, that I didn’t belong.

It felt like my 17-year-old self-had been proven right. I laughed when it was suggested I applied to Oxford, I looked at my head of sixth form and said, ‘a place like that doesn’t want people like me’, I hoped I would be wrong.

In a matter of minutes Adjoa changed all of that. She stood in front of us all and told us that we were welcome, we belonged and that our stories, perspectives, and ideas were all as valuable as each other’s. In the adverts for her workshops, it says she’s particularly interested in meeting students from ethnic minorities, low socioeconomic backgrounds, those with disabilities and those identifying as LGBTQ+; groups often marginalised or erased from the narrative, whose stories often aren’t told and if they are, not by the people who live them. For too many of these students, myself included, they feel excluded from many places, and access often comes as an afterthought. I’ve always felt a sense of frustration when people told me not to worry, ‘there’ll be people like you there’. Representation matters but even statements like these have an air of exclusivity, that you weren’t wanted or didn’t belong in the main, you had to stick to a little side group.

For Adjoa, she says, “I think we have to re-educate ourselves because I think there is a lot of pressure for people to fit into their particular box and not stray from it.”

I ask her why she is here doing the work she is doing. “I’m here for all of us who need space made for us.” She asks, who has the right to tell us we should be excluded from the spaces we feel excluded from, if we have the skills or curiosity to want to be in them? In her state of ‘outrage and childish it’s not fair’ she says she’s simply interested in being fair. Not “more superior or more entitled or more exclusive, I’m saying let’s be fair.”

As for the phrase ‘people like them,’ she sees it as a classic way of othering and disempowering and is interested in the opposite because she has been ‘people like them’. “Our existence is miraculous, and this othering is a waste of growth, a waste of joy” and any structure where this is the narrative, she will push back against. Pushing back is exactly what she is doing, by opening up the conversations but also by setting the example, creating an empowering, collective, creative space where everyone from all different backgrounds is welcome and is made to feel like they are heard and belong. Highlighted is what we have in common, and we celebrate that. We also learn, respect and value the stories and perspectives we share with each other that highlight our differences. We learn about the people who came before us and the importance of knowing that we have been part of the story before this point.

She tells us stories of the unsung, stories most of us have never heard before, but in knowing about them Adjoa says; “we can go forward standing on the shoulders of those who already came before us”. The examples she gives in her lecture are black footballers and the contributions they have made to British football; including Jack Leslie the first black player to be called up for England in 1925. She asks if we knew this story, maybe less fuss would be made about black footballers now, and maybe less hate would have been received by our young black penalty takers at the 2021 Euros?

In her short time here, she has created an empowering space for us all to share. I’d given up hope on ever feeling like I belonged in Oxford up until that point. However, now I had been given the space to belong, my question, now in my own state of outrage, why can’t this be mirrored elsewhere?

I ask her how we can apply what is created in that room to wider life?

“If we can use days like today, of being together, as a touchstone, to constantly remind yourself, when the noise that says you shouldn’t be here, you’re not valid, not worthy, is loud… remember the people I told you about, those unsung people whose achievements we don’t know about and just hold on to them.

“Remind yourself when you need it and re-encourage yourself that you belong.

“Hold your place, hold your nerve, hold your line because what you are doing is holding a space for joy for yourself. For the celebration of yourself.”

That joy is infectious and uplifting. What she tells me rings true. From that first workshop onwards, I have held on to that feeling and felt empowered, not only to stay and find that joy for myself, but also to share it – create that space for others as Adjoa has for us. Her work is all about stories, and here I want to tell this story of hope and joy, so it too can be used as a foundation for future work to be built upon.  We are already here with a space of mutual belonging in Oxford, we are part of the story already, hopefully in knowing that we can move forward standing on the shoulders of Adjoa and the work she has done.

“There are terrific stories of joy and beauty, togetherness, cooperation and elevation but they’re not the stories that lead.”

Creating such a welcoming space started with the smallest of gestures, disguised as a simple memory game, we started the session by going around every person, having them say their name, the group repeating it back to them and welcoming them. This is something that could have been rushed but instead, Adjoa stopped and made sure every single person’s name was being pronounced correctly. I asked her why it was important to her to start the session this way, “Names are something we carry with us everywhere and people bothering to pronounce your name correctly means they’re bothered to spend enough time with you to pay attention to the fact that it is important. That you are important. That honouring the name you carry is important.”

You could hear in the voices of many in attendance this was something people seldom paid attention to, after repeating their name once or twice some were ready to give in, but Adjoa encouraged them. She talks about how people often feel embarrassed about needing to ask you to repeat your name or not getting the pronunciation right the first time but that the point is, “that intention, the intention to pay attention.”

It was worth it, such a small gesture yet I watched as people’s faces lit up as they heard a room of people pay attention, make the effort and pronounce their name correctly. Names carry so much meaning about our identity, but for so many, it is something that goes overlooked. When our names are said incorrectly many of us laugh, for me often going ‘I don’t know who this Teigen person is’, but such a small thing can make us feel so unseen. For Adjoa, she says “I’m much happier to go ‘say your name three times and everyone says it back’, let’s honour and respect that person because we all deserve that. It’s really a tiny thing.”

Adjoa is interested in and gives us the space to explore and express the complexity and multiplicity of stories that make us who we are. For all of us, assumptions are made by the people around us, of the story that makes us, based solely on the way we look, the colour of our skin, and our accent. Each of us is beautifully complex and it’s when we take the time to ask and listen and tell the stories that aren’t given the platform to be told that we are enriched by the full force of life. We are all, she says “vibrating with living history”. At her lecture, a White English Victorian formal family portrait is projected behind her. Adjoa looks at the faces in the picture and smiles before telling us the portrait is of part of her family and talks us through her family tree. Whilst she laughs that nobody needed to see that, she included it because for her “when I look at my great grandfather Joseph Pickering and my nana Jessie and my great grandmother Jessie that is not what people would expect to be part of my family if they look at me.

People’s lives are interestingly complex, we need to think about that complexity.”

It is also, as Adjoa tells me, where we find our common ground with each other and that stories need to be told so we can “understand what’s really going on in the world and the ways we engage with each other”. At the workshop we play the game ‘anyone who’ where people run across the circle if something said applies to them such as ‘anyone who is wearing black shoes’. It highlights what we have in common, potentially unexpected commonalities. What we find in common, who we resonate with, and who our role models are, also interests her. “It’s about essence and spirit sometimes”, you don’t necessarily have to look like someone or sound like someone for you to resonate with them, to share something in common with them. She tells me “When I play Richard III, I do so because, as a little mixed-race girl from the Cotswolds in the 1960s I resonated with him, his sense of not being fully embraced. What had my life to do with Richard III? Nothing and everything. I love the freedom of that, let me get my influences where I get my influences.”

We are students from all different backgrounds, different ethnicities, sexualities, genders, social class backgrounds, and ages, we are all studying a range of subjects but in those workshops, we are a collective. It doesn’t matter if you have any experience in theatre, it’s all about stories, which are told, which aren’t, who’s telling them and why. We explore texts by Lolita Chakrabarti, Kobina Sekyi, Biyi Bandele and Shakespeare. We share our perspectives and ‘lenses’ through our own writing. Most important of all we are together in a collective joy, a celebration of ourselves and each other, one in which I hope we can expand to the rest of the university and beyond.

For anyone reading this, who is being made to feel like they don’t belong or is being made to feel ashamed of parts of their identity – the final question I asked Adjoa was her advice to you and why you should come to the next workshop.

“If people feel like they are being excluded or marginalised or made to feel less than they should, come to the workshop for encouragement that they are fabulous and they are welcome and they are wanted and actually the ‘less than’ appellation should be applied to the people who are making them feel that way.

You are at Oxford University by dint of your hard work, your application, your curiosity and the skills that you possess, and no one has the right to take that away from you. Any who attempts to, is unworthy and should not be paid attention to.

It is your right, it is your duty and make it your joy, to remain and flourish because this is an extraordinary institution, and it has many benefits, and you should not be shoved sideways away from those benefits because somebody else is confused by your presence.”

“This is your time, your opportunity – How wonderful you are.”

Image credit: St Catherine’s College

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