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Fabulism: Selina Thompson at Ovalhouse

7 October 2015 | Ryan Ormonde

Ovalhouse opens a season of new theatre this month, a highlight of which is Dark & Lovely, a performance by Selina Thompson that is part of her As Wide and As Deep As The Sea project. This and other shows are presented by Ovalhouse under the banner 'Fabulism'.

Selina Thompson’s latest project is called As Wide and As Deep As The Sea, and she describes it as “about what it is to be Black, what it is to be British, and what it is to hold those identities in your body, life, spirit and history in 2015”. This manifests as “a series of residencies where she will explore what it means to be black in cities that aren’t her own”. So Thompson’s Dark & Lovely tour is a work of research into different cities and their cultural perceptions. As the tour arrives at Ovalhouse this week it is London that Thompson is putting to the test.

Based in Leeds, in recent years Thompson built up a buzz with her gloriously messy, excessive food-based series of works Edible Women. Her website is painted in bright primary colours; she beams in her publicity shots; her ideas are immediately accessible but generate many questions, often around various concepts of identity. Her ongoing Race Cards performance is a case in point: she describes it as “An installation for up to three people at a time, featuring a thousand questions about race”.

The current tour marks a key point in the progression of Thompson’s work. As she explains, “Dark and Lovely was developed in the barber shops and hairdressers - and making the work was a real coming of age moment for me: one in which I got to reconnect my heritage and cultural upbringing with my developing political consciousness and my practice as an artist.” On the one hand, rituals and discussions around hair can be a point of perceived difference and source of anxiety, on the other a focal point for community and an excuse to come together.

“I like to think I've made something that reflects the love and care that those that opened up their community spaces extended to me - but also something with bite!” Thompson continues, “Something which reflects the battle black women have to go through throughout their lives, negotiating living in a culture dominated by an unattainable beauty standard that marks them down as ‘other’. I hope I've made something that stands in solidarity with anybody that's ever felt crushed by that.”

It’s not hard to see the appeal of a show that features a giant walk-in weave but Ovalhouse’s Director of Theatre Rachel Briscoe wanted Dark & Lovely for the freshness of its approach: “It’s done in a way which is super theatrical. There isn’t anything lecturing or agitprop-y about her work, it’s really dynamic and using all the tools of theatre to answer those really important questions.”

Dark & Lovely is being presented at Ovalhouse as part of a season called Fabulism. Briscoe explains how they coined the word: “We were really struck by how different all of the shows were in subject, form, audience experience – but there was something about all of them which felt reassuringly familiar and also excitingly peculiar. So it was this combination – this thing ‘fabulism’ – that we ended up using as a thread to tie all the shows together.”

Fabulism includes ‘First Bites’: six artists who are at earlier stages at their careers and Invisible Treasure, described as ‘an interactive digital playspace’. What is that exactly? “It’s something really new and really fresh,” says Briscoe, “there are no actors in the space. The whole space is fully interactive, so whatever people do in the space it will change the experience completely, it will change how you look, how you sound at what options are available to you. It’s a little bit like being inside a computer game.”

Meanwhile, Dark & Lovely promises to be more like entering a space of solidarity and friendship. In Thompson’s words: “the friend that notices (and compliments!) each new weave, holds your braids back if you need to be sick, lends you a scrunchie if you're going in for a fight, and strokes your head wrap as you fall asleep.”

Fabulism begins Wednesday 7th October at Ovalhouse and continues until 28th November. To book tickets for Dark & Lovely and other shows, see website.

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