Windrush stories brought to Leeds

Rehearsals and workshops for Sorrel & Black Cake, an exploration of the legacy of the Windrush generation, which is being performed in Leeds this weekend.
Rehearsals and workshops for Sorrel & Black Cake, an exploration of the legacy of the Windrush generation, which is being performed in Leeds this weekend.
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A show created by young people in Leeds explores the legacy of the Windrush generation. Yvette Huddleston reports.

This weekend will see the work of several months come to fruition in two special performances in Leeds.

A group of local young performers and creatives have been inspired by stories of Caribbean heritage to make a new production celebrating this year’s 70th anniversary of the arrival of the ship the SS Windrush, which brought the first wave of settlers to Britain.

Sorrel & Black Cake, developed and supported by the Geraldine Connor Foundation, which works to ensure access to and engagement with the arts for talented young people from diverse and challenging backgrounds, captures the pioneering spirit of those early migrants through storytelling, music and movement.

Poet and theatre-maker Khadijah Ibrahiim and composer-musician Stella Litras have been working on the project since last November, running two-hour workshops every Monday.

“There have been 15 young people involved and we have been working with older people too who have been sharing their stories and memories, so it has been an inter-generational project, with different age groups inspiring each other,” says Ibrahiim. “There are several layers to this because it is a two-year programme of work with a creative side and an educational element.”

There has been input from four leading artists – dancer and choreographer Donald Edwards, storyteller Ansell Broderick and singer songwriter Paulette Morris – who have all delivered workshops, giving the young people the valuable oppportunity of being able to work alongside professional creatives.

“They are all community-based artists with international reputations and they all have some connection with the Windrush story through their parents or grandparents,” says Ibrahiim. “A lot of the work we have been doing is just allowing the young people to be creative in the space using movement, performance, narrative and music.”

The group will be presenting their production at two performances this weekend – at the Mandela Centre tonight and at Leeds Central Library tomorrow.

Sadly, much of the recent media coverage surrounding Windrush has been around the shameful treatment of many of those early migrants, and their children, being stripped of their British citizenship and identity, with some having to face the prospect of deportation.

The subject has been discussed in the workshops, but is not a key part of Sorrel & Black Cake as the production was already well into development when the scandal erupted. “There is an element of it in there but at this stage in the project we didn’t feel we could develop it further,” says Ibrahiim. “Within the narrative you get a sense of belonging and of the contribution that the new arrivals made to British culture and society. How those communities were living side by side and how they were navigating the politics of the time.”

The intention is to address 
these broader issues in the future. In the second half of the two-year programme, the team will be exploring migration in general and the notion of being ‘a citizen of nowhere’ – which is extremely timely and pertinent in the context of the global migrant crisis we are currently witnessing.

The narrative of Sorrel & Black Cake has come out of the process of documenting both individual and community stories and the production focusses on a fictional character, Miss Letty, who arrived in Britain in 1948. The action takes place in her neat and tidy front room where friends and family are gathered after her death, full of questions about her life and determined to give her a spectacular send-off.

As they delve into her photo album and record collection, her compelling story is told through her children and grandchildren.

Music is central to the production and Listras has been working with the young people researching the extraordinarily rich musical landscape which emerged in the UK as a direct result of the influence of Caribbean migrants.

“We have been looking at the amalgamation of genres which manifested in Black Britain from the late 1940s – including calypso, reggae and gospel music,” she says. “We also experimented with drumming and chanting to better understand the roots of those genres in Africa and the Caribbean and, most importantly, how they have influenced popular music culture today.”

Sorrel & Black Cake is being performed at the Mandela Centre, Leeds on June 22 and in Room 700, Leeds Central Library on June 23. Details and tickets gcfoundation.co.uk