Utopian dreams and confronting reality - the tale of Big Foot
Read Michael O’Brien-Britton’s charming interview with Joseph Barnes-Philips about writing Big Foot. The Black Theatre Live, HighRise Theatre and Stratford Circus Arts Centre’s autumn tour in 2017.
I pulled up in a cab a half hour late for my interview with Joseph Barnes-Phillips. I’m new to London, so I got myself turned around on my way down to meet him at Tara Theatre. He was sitting at a table near the window and happened to catch me, in a lot of distress, and scrambling to get the door open. I apologized profusely to him for being late. His response was just something to the effect “It’s fine.” My worried melted away.
Joseph Barnes-Phillips, actor, social worker, now writer, is really a down to earth guy. He’s focused on his dream, and he’s driven, but he was comforting to speak to. He joked with me, he was forgiving when I fumbled, he made it easy to interview him.
But why did I interview him anyway?
BIG FOOT A COMING OF AGE STORY
Well, his upcoming play, Big Foot, I’ll let him speak for himself now. Big Foot is a play about “a boy called Rayleigh that has a lot of pressures on him. He’s a big, black, south Londoner. He’s involved in quite a lot of street activity. He’s 18 years old, and he doesn’t really want to grow up. He’s happy to be in the life that he was in at 13 years old. He’s happy to be in that environment, but he’s got his Mum to look after. It’s that journey of responsibility and having to – wanting to – change because you realize somebody else needs you.”
The play developed from personal experience, he told me, “I was a young carer [for his Mother] for a very long time. And there was one day I was running from somebody with a knife. And I thought to myself ‘Hold up a minute. If I’m gonna get stabbed. Then I’m gonna be in the hospital with my Mum too.’”
CONFOUNDING AND CHALLENGING STEREOTYPES
We talked about the meaning behind the show’s title “There’s a deeper side to these characters. Ethnic actors and young black men are too often tarnished with a broad-brush approach: being a gangster, or being a drug dealer and I’m like ‘No. No. No. It’s different from that! So, that was why I wrote Big Foot – to show a different aspect of the monster. We’re showing the real vulnerable side of somebody that could be a monster. I originally was going to call it The Heart of Big Foot.”
Joseph is concerned with labels and judgements about being a young black man, he said, “Big Foot, is the culmination of all of these name callings that young black men endure. Because nobody really understands what you are.”
THEATRE IS STILL AN ELITIST INDUSTRY
Joseph and I spoke about his other work, with HighRise Theatre, and their work with young people, he spoke of some of the greater current issues in London and the UK. “We segregate ourselves. We want to feel safe and comfortable. Just like me. So, our thing is how do we bridge that?” He thinks that through theatre, “hopefully we will create a utopia where people actually connect with each other instead of judging each other.”
He thinks that theatre remains very elitist. “Lots of people on the older end are in a different class. So, with HighRise Theatre we try to bridge that class gap by creating work that is both entertaining and insightful for everyone.”
MAKING THE PERSONAL POLITICAL
He wants his play, Big Foot, to speak to everyone, and after my conversation with him, I believe it. I mentioned that every teenage boy can remember a time when “all he wanted to do was watch Anime in his pants.” He responded, “Big Foot, he wants to be a hero. He wants to be a good person and a righteous person. But realizes with all the responsibilities that he’s gotten he finds it difficult, and ends up making the biggest mistake in the world, because it’s about him and his identity. Not necessarily what he’s done or what he can do to somebody. It’s about who he is and it shakes him completely.”
Big Foot is about learning to overcome a crisis of identity. One that many young people have to go through to grow up. And I can’t think of a better person to write this story. It will be showing at Tara Theatre from Wednesday 1 November to Saturday 4 November and on national tour with the Black Theatre Live consortium across the UK this fall.