Find Me Amongst the Black is the title, but it could equally describe the challenge facing the audience. Because it’s hard to find the person – the character, the feeling, the human presence – in this story. The plot, though, is clear enough: it’s a new take on an old story, of star-crossed lovers divided by bonds of family and belonging. In this version – written by Parv Bancil, choreographed and directed by Darshan Singh Bhuller, with Hardial Rai as co-creator of the story – Simmi (Seeta Patel) is a young British Punjabi who falls in love with Michael (Gerrard Martin), a man she meets on her regular commute from Southall station. But Michael is black – which, for Simmi’s brother Bally (Rashpal Singh Bansal), makes him from the wrong side of the tracks. No matter that Bally is himself dating a white girl; he burns with shame at his sister’s choice.
It’s a potent setup, and the outcome – foretold early on – is Simmi’s death. The bulk of the performance reveals different slants on the events leading up to the final enigma (was she pushed or did she jump?). The varying moods are echoed by three kathak dancers (Amina Khayyam, Hanna Mannila and Quincy Charles), who thread through the piece like a chorus, while voiceovers track the escalating over-identifications within the central love triangle of brother-sister-lover. Bally jackknifes his body, increasinlgy cut up about the situation. Michael’s accent grows ‘blacker’ as he points out while Bally doesn’t like Michael being black, he’s happy to listen to black music and dress in black style. Good point. In their midst, Simmi is caught between duty and desire, her body the site of internal as well as external battles.
It is both bold and necessary to raise such issues of desire and identity, race and hypocrisy, and it’s good to see racism shown as both deeper and wider than a simplistic white/non-white divide, and also exposed amongst South Asians. Even better to see it intersecting with gender, the figure of a woman becoming subsumed by and finally sacrificied to her emblematic role between men. But potent ideas do not necessarily make a potent piece, and Find Me Amongst the Black flounders among its issues and styles. The digital animation is the most inspired aspect of the production, cleverly mixing projections and animations, populating the stage with crowds and scenes. But its backdrop to Simmi and Michael’s “falling in love” scene – sunflower bursts against picture-postcard parody – is a knowing wink to the idea of romance in a scene where you really need to believe in depth of feeling.
Then there are odd musical discrepancies. After Simmi is beaten, we get what sounds like the theme tune to a 60s spy caper; so we really don’t feel her pain. And if the dancers, variously trained in kathak, bharata natyam and contemporary styles, are good in their own fields, the choreography struggles when they’re put together. The ending, a pure kathak sequence by the chorus, seems entirely tacked on, as if the dancers had wandered in from a different stage altogether. And too often, the underlying ideas are spelled out in voiceovers but not lived in performance.
There’s certainly a potent recipe behind Find Me Amongst the Black, but in practice it’s a bit of meal to get through. It has the feeling of too many cooks, with too many thematic and stylistic ingredients competing with each other. One final complaint: there’s a superfluous choreographic joke during the romance when Michael mistakes Quincy Charles for his beloved. The gay snigger is fleeting and peripheral – but also hard to stomach from a piece about double standards and loving the wrong person.