Review: Black Matter (Crazy Coqs, online)
Giles Terera's song cycle contains protest, joy, anger and love
Of all the varied responses to the silence triggered by a year of theatre closures and lockdown, Giles Terera's is the most simple and straightforward. Stuck in his Soho flat, unable to work, he watched events unfold in the London streets around him and wrote 12 songs which captured what he felt and what he saw. Then he went along to the cabaret stage at Crazy Coqs and recorded the results, accompanying his own singing on piano and guitar.
To be honest, in advance, I expected to be bored. I admire Terera for his performances in shows such as Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Rosmersholm, and most notably Hamilton, in which he memorably incarnated Hamilton's arch-rival Aaron Burr with subtlety and understanding. But watching him alone in a room for an hour, strumming his guitar and knocking out a few melodies, just didn't seem my thing.
How wrong I was. From the first song to the last, I was gripped. It's partly the variety of the compositions and the range of emotions Terera encapsulates. He deals with anger, loneliness, love, and mental health in songs that range from the funky, to the ballad, to the blues. Many directly address the widespread racism exposed by the Black Lives Matter protests. There's the opening "Black Matter", an act of remembrance for black lives under-valued, traduced and taken, and "A Picture of Britain", a tribute to the artist Khadija Saye, who died in the Grenfell Tower fire, which combines haunting simplicity with a ferocious message: "You say it's a shame, well I say it's a crime/That the people in power/Don't give a fuck about the people of Grenfell Tower."
Even more substantial is "You Have the Right to Remain", introduced by heavy chords on the piano, which opens with a monologue in which Terera recounts how he witnessed an incident where a white woman threw wine over two black men, but it was the men who were arrested in the most heavy handed way, until people intervened. "I immediately saw how different it could have been and often is," he says, before launching into song that celebrates the idea that black people have the right to remain "Brilliant/True/Resilient/You."
There are also songs that talk about his sister, about birds singing as they return to the empty city, about the hypocrisy of religion and about lockdown love affairs. He shows his awareness of loneliness and sadness, of the need for people to take care of their mental health, to be kind to themselves as well as others. Finally, he makes a plea for compassion and love.
As he says that word, Terera looks very directly at the camera. His presence makes his words compelling. Simply dressed in grey shawl and jeans, beautifully filmed from many angles in pin- sharp high definition, he has a consummate ability to make each word count, to deliver the songs with an actor's timing, to make every glance at the camera meaningful. He draws you into the world and meaning of what he is describing in the most compelling way. The honest directness of his response is everything. I couldn't look away.