Tales from the Front Line… and Other Stories at Talawa Theatre Online
Never in our lifetime has there been such a crucial need for verbatim theatre to give voice to those who are often unheard. Talawa Theatre Company is renowned for championing Black artists; Tales from the Front Line is a six-episode series of short films created from interviews with Black key workers, exploring the complex impact of COVID-19 on those on the front line.
“I could tell the kids were worried because they were quiet,” says the titular teacher of episode one. She goes on to explain that her school didn’t even have hot water and struggled to provide any hand sanitiser. Staff were instructed to remove disposable gloves in case they distressed the kids. The health and wellbeing of these overlooked professionals was jeopardised in favour of the “business as usual” approach ordered by senior leaders. Viewers share the teacher’s perplexed response, while being reminded that tackling COVID has been a new experience for all, with those in command seemingly making it up as they go along.
The film is at its most poignant when the murder of George Floyd, and the many issues it brought to the surface, is discussed. Describing how her mother used to be treated by white patients when she came here as a nurse leads the teacher to mull over the fact that there has been a distinct lack of coverage of Black doctors and health care workers on the news. She expresses her love of art but complains she can’t see herself anywhere, so takes to painting Black women herself. Her sentiments are best emphasised with the line “all the paint is peeling off and the truth is underneath”. It’s a thought-provoking start to the series.
There is more aggression in the second instalment, as a mental health worker describes lockdown life as being akin to an episode of Black Mirror. Experiencing toothache, she realises she has unconsciously been grinding her teeth throughout the day, such is her worry about being called to work on the COVID ward. 15 of the 16 beds there are taken by Black men; it transpires that Black males are also prone to being put in isolation because they are deemed violent threats. Even more astounding, Black women are less likely to be given pain relief because they are considered “strong”.
The voiceover accentuates the fact that so many people share the health worker’s views, yet aren’t permitted a platform on which to speak. The unflinching openness of the monologue is sobering, especially when the NHS clap is rebuked for being nothing more than performative. How can such a gesture be respected when NHS workers received no pay rise, despite being on the very front line, risking their lives to save everybody else’s?
The narrative goes on to introduce a train dispatcher in episode three, the usual challenges of his job having been exacerbated not just by the pandemic itself, but by people’s reactions and increasingly blasé behaviours resulting from it. Film four is the most optimistic, as a shop worker recalls how being thanked and even acknowledged for her service is one of the positives to emerge from the crisis. Being able to enjoy the calm that has claimed the quiet streets and actually looking at nature has also allowed many to take a much-needed pause and reset.
Each film varies in tone, but all powerfully underline the deep-seated problems that are still shamefully existent in our society. Racism is another virus, says the mental health worker. Here’s hoping we one day find a cure.
Tales from the Front Line… and Other Stories is available to stream via Talawa Theatre’s website and YouTube. For further information visit the theatre’s website here.