What do laughter and misery have in common? Leyla Josephine’s case study ‘Hopeless’ asked precisely that question. The performance started with a mockery of pretentious love poetry, with the host poetically reciting lines from Love Island. Next came Murid Laly, the first of two poets who supported Josephine. Laly, following Josephine, focused on more melancholy matters. Perhaps that’s one reason laughing through our miseries is so important; laughter can break down our problems and give them chance to fade, which allows us to examine them more clearly.
Laly was grounded by his book, which he occasionally glanced down at throughout the performance. He was well-acquainted enough with his lines to cultivate and maintain a powerful sound, yet left room for emotional expression by not merely reading his poems. Rather, his engaging body language allowed him to deftly introduce heavy themes of toxic masculinity and race. When asked about his use of sound and metaphor, and how they contribute to his poem’s interpretation, Laly said he’s not concerned with interpretation. He merely seeks for a voice to transcribe his experiences.
Nadine Aisha Jassat was the second performer. Inspired by Andrew Gibson and Langston Hughes, Jassat describes herself as an artist-activist. She combines the creative arts with social justice to raise awareness and educate people about gender-based violence and Islamophobia. Her confidence on stage and light humour concerning her subject matter helped dissolve the discomfort that discussing socio-economic and white privilege to a privileged audience brings about. When asked whether art can be an effective form of activism, Jassat explained that storytelling has been used for centuries as a way to connect with people and, in this way, it has contributed to social change.
After Jassat came the headliner, Leyla Josephine. Her performance began with the sharp sound of an alarm clock, waking up her need for a purpose. She began by describing how the “big boys” of the world live with overflowing comfort, stability, and power, and how nice it must be to be on top. Eventually, she proclaimed, she wouldn’t want to be one of them at all, because she couldn’t live with the guilt. She goes on to tell stories of her attempts at activist work and how pointless it all felt. How can she – a little speck – help solve such grand issues?
‘Hopeless’ asks the question of what privileged westerners can do. It makes us consider our comfortable lives and face our guilt. Josephine portrayed the bleak and existential truth with humour that perfectly captured its absurdity.
While Josephine tried to avoid making the privileged into the oppressed, the play had the attitude of indulging the privileged. Why do we cater to white guilt other than to prove and showcase our innocence to racism and other systems of oppression? It is easy to fall prey to such an approach as an artist living in a capitalist society, where any piece of art, to be experienced, has to be consumed. A lot of the time, an artist has to choose whether they want to reach a broad audience or indulge them. Choosing the latter can be extremely risky, facing the danger of reinforcing our lifestyle rather than encouraging us to act.
Despite this somewhat problematic coddling attitude, ‘Hopeless’ had emotional depth and intensity. There were no powerful stage aesthetics, yet Josephine’s use of the space and her impeccable comedic timing made for an engaging play. Her informal and personal tone allowed the audience to dive into discomfort and question our society’s values. When asked about how important humour is in dealing with our miseries, Josephine responded that pain could not exist without sadness and that laughter can help us move on.
Josephine’s confident and playful performance made for an outstanding comedic play with a powerful message. We must cling to hope because it is the only thing that will motivate us to act.
Hopeless by Leyla Josephine took place at the Scottish Poetry Library on 4 May 2018.
Image: summonedbyfells via Flickr.