“I wanted to change the power dynamic”: SesayArts in Conversation with Selina Thompson on her barrier-breaking Race Cards

Selina Thompson, Race Cards (photo: Manuel Vason at DARC Media)

For the first time ever, Selina Thompson‘s Race Cards is travelling out of the UK, and it’s coming to Toronto (before heading to Brazil, the US and Australia). The installation and archive will appear as part of the Progress Festival, a festival of international performance and ideas collectively curated and produced by a series of Toronto-based companies, and presented in partnership by SummerWorks Performance Festival and The Theatre CentreRace Cards is curated and presented by The Theatre Centre in association with Little Black Afro Theatre Company.

Race Cards is a fully participatory experience. One by one, audience members enter a room. They find themselves surrounded by 1000 questions about race that Ms Thompson has written on note cards, as they have occurred to her over an extended period of time. They choose one questions to answer, write their response on a blank card provided, and leave it in the room before exiting.

Race Cards has garnered acclaim in the various UK venues where it has been presented, and will surely prove as popular here . . . and not just because admission is free. The one-to-one concept is both dialogic and binary, which means that no two installations can ever be alike. Toronto’s diverse population feels like fertile ground for Ms Thompson’s questions. And the notion of being alone in a room, literally surrounded by questions, is stark and potent. Ms Thompson’s race cards catalyze an intimate face-off between her wonderings and each individual’s thoughts. There is no stage, no buffer – just a room pregnant with questions, and an aloneness that invites each respondent to ponder views that may be contradictory, affirmative or even alien.

This is an understated, non-confrontational, individual and immersive approach for examining attitudes towards race and identity. At the same time, this private conversation is a provocative exploration of the act and art of questioning and answering. Since each respondent must first determine which question (out of a thousand!) to answer, the hidden questions are, How to choose? Then which to choose? The question that seems easiest to answer – or one that awakens a nascent view or that must now be addressed?

And what of the questions not chosen, but which have been read, considered and still linger in the psyche? There are swirls of questions with a limitless potential for disparate answers  . . . and a bottomless capacity to inspire further questions.

SesayArts spoke with Selina Thompson. Naturally, we had questions…

SesayArts: How did you conceive the idea of Race Cards? And why did you decide to present it as an interactive installation in the format that you have?

ST: I spent a week in Falmouth (south England, by the sea) exploring a new work I wanted to make about the speed of discourse around race on Twitter, where this works, and where it doesn’t. The idea was born from the set of questions I was asking there. It began as a card game, grew into a theatre performance, then a durational performance, before becoming the installation that it is now. Its final form is in response to a lot of things: its popularity and people’s responses to it, its impact on me as a performer and creator, and wanting to push the concept of the race card as far as I could.

SesayArts: The title recalls the term “playing the race card”….Is this correct? And how does your installation, the exchange of questions and answers, delve into the implications of “playing the race card”?

ST: Yes, that was intentional. I had been interested in the idea of playing the race card for a long time. It’s a term often used to silence people of colour, so I wanted to reclaim it, play with it, no longer feel disempowered by it. I also wanted to change the power dynamic. In an interrogation, the person that asks the questions frames the conversation and holds the power. This is traditionally the place of whiteness. I wanted to occupy that space – and this is what the work seeks to do.

SesayArts: Is this the first time that an audience outside of the UK will experience Race Cards? If so, how might attitudes toward race and identity vary, based on what you know of Canada? 

ST: Yes, it is the first time an audience outside of the UK will experience Race Cards. I don’t know enough about Canada to answer that question well, and so I’m not going to try. There is nothing worse (nor more arrogant) than someone from another country presuming they know how race works in your country, especially when they get it wrong (which they almost always do). On a first visit – and this is my first visit to Canada – you very much need to stay in the realm of listening… which is why it’s good I’ve come here with 1000 questions.

SesayArts: Once an audience member writes their response to the question they’ve chosen, what happens to that response? Might the responses inform another show?

ST: The responses are archived and kept safe. When I’ve finished touring the work, I’ll sit down with them and figure out what comes next.

SesayArts: Has a response to one of your questions ever surprised you? Why?

ST: I don’t read the responses, for several reasons, one being I don’t want people’s responses to dictate the questions that I write. So we gather the answers up, and we keep them safe until the day comes when we no longer want to tour the work. Then I’ll read them.

SesayArts: We’re full of curiosity about Race Cards. Anticipating it, and all the questions it will inspire, we hesitate to ask too much now. The final word – or question – is yours. What would you like to add or ask, that we haven’t?

ST: Nothing! The art speaks for me – just as it should.

News You Can Use

What: Race Cards, created by Selina Thompson; Producer: Emma Beverley; Designer: Bethany Wells; Production Manager: Louise Gregory
Curated and presented at the Progress Festival by The Theatre Centre in association with Little Black Afro Theatre Company

When: Wednesday February 7 – Saturday, February 10,  2:00 pm–9:00 pm, and Sunday, February 11, 2:00 pm–5:00 pm; timed entries throughout open hours

Where: BMO Incubator for Live Arts, The Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St W, Toronto, ON

Information: ProgressFestival.org  Admission to Race Cards is free-of-charge, with advance registration. Click here to register.

Festival Tickets: TheatreCentre.org and 416-538-0988

Explore and Learn: SelinaThompson.co.uk

© 2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.