Journalist Natasha Tripney speaks to director Nancy Hirst and actor Vaneeka Dadhria about making The Ballad of St John’s Car Park
The changing of the name of a car park seems like a small thing on the surface, but small acts can have big impacts. During the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, campaigners in Medway raised concerns about the name of St. John’s Car Park in Chatham town centre. Up until then it had been named after Sir John Hawkins, a prominent 16th century slave trader. The protestors called for this to change.
Getting the name changed wasn’t a simple task. Despite a petition with thousands of names being submitted to the council, not only did they initially refuse to act, one Medway councillor described the Black Lives Matter protestors as a “lynch mob.”
Nancy Hirst, artistic director of Icon Theatre, recalls hosting a Zoom meeting with the young people in Icon’s Theatre31 Youth Programme around the time. They expressed their frustration that nothing was ever going to change in their area. But then the media picked up the story and, within four months, not only had the car park been renamed but a working group had been set up to look at what other local monuments might be too.
“It’s really unusual to have protests that actually change something so concrete so quickly,” says Hirst. And while the name of a car park might not be a massive change, she says, “those young people and I found it quite inspiring. People said: ‘No, that’s not okay.’ And the authorities listened.”
This story of change in action sits at the heart of Icon Theatre’s new show The Ballad of St John’s Car Park. Created by the cast in conjunction with local community groups, it features a company of over 100 people. The company’s own stories of protest helped shape the show.
As well as exploring the impact of the Black Lives Matter protests on the local community, the show also looks at trans activism and trans rights, how LGBTQ rights have changed over the last 50 years, and how protests and Pride marches and solidarity within communities has created change.
The closure of the Chatham Dockyard in 1984, bringing to an end more than 400 years of shipbuilding and naval tradition in the area, is another source of inspiration. The older community cast members brought their memories of that time to the piece.
This approach to telling the stories of a community is typical of Icon’s work. The company use the arts to bring people together, to give their stories space, allowing them to tell them in their own way about their own history. Having set the company up 20 years ago, Hirst’s approach to theatre changed in 2011 when she started making work with ex-offenders and this community focussed ethos has been a central part of their work ever since. “Now we’re completely about communities and getting people’s voices out there,” she says. “Particularly over the last six years this has really gained momentum”. Icon’s work has become increasingly ambitious in terms of form and scale. If Not Now (2022) was a massive outdoor dance-based production that featured 187 performers and visuals projected onto the walls of Rochester Castle and The Chatham Witch (2018) explored the history of Medway women through the ages from the Anglo Saxon period to the Second World War. As a local arts organisation, she says, “it’s a wonderful feeling when people feel like they own it.”
The Ballad of St John’s Car Park draws on both the experiences of people in the community and the lived experiences that the performers have of these issues. The professional performers Vaneeka Dadhria, David King-Yombo, Jaye Hudson and PK Taylor all bring their own experiences into the mix. Dadhria, an actor and beatboxer who starred in the West End production Cyrano de Bergerac along with James McAvoy, plays Asha. Her story revolves around religion. Dadhria comes from a Sikh and Hindu family and Asha is Sikh. The show explores the role of giving and selflessness in Sikhism and the tradition of Langar, the community kitchen of a gurdwara, which serves meals to all free of charge, regardless of religion. She hopes the production will show that if you are struggling there are people out there that are willing to help. “There’s not enough coverage of this,” Dadhria says. “There’s not enough talk on the topic, so it’s great that this play highlighted it on behalf of my character.”
“We’ve worked with different people to develop the script,” explains Hirst. Performers and writers Tabby Lamb, Harveen Mann ARAM and Ravneet Sehra have helped develop the text. “We’ve been weaving these stories together. It’s a mixture of lived experience and reflections from what the community are saying.”
The production also, Hirst stresses, has lighter elements. The show has a pub setting, with the audience sitting at tables in the pub. It’s also karaoke night, says Hirst, so the show is “punctuated with snippets of karaoke sung by members of the cast.” Afterwards, the bar stays open and there’s real karaoke. “The audience gets to sing on the stage where the show was just happening,” she laughs. Food also plays a part. “The idea is that people feel like they’re part of a community party, and it feels fun and warm, like they’re part of something.”
Being part of something is central both to Icon’s ethos and to the idea of what a protest movement can be to those who are part of it. “Everybody we spoke to about protests said that feeling part of a community is such an essential part of it, as well as the change that everybody’s trying to make.” Protest knits people together, she says, “because it stops these experiences being experienced alone.”
For Dadhria, this extends to the creative process. She’s found it incredibly energising. “You never stop learning, that’s the best thing about this industry,” she explains. “I’m learning from everybody, bouncing off everybody, which is great. It’s such a safe environment and I’m so comfortable.”
Celebrating protest, as a tool for creating change and for bringing people together, feels even more important than ever, with the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act placing limitations on our right to protest. As a theatre-maker Hirst is acutely aware of how important having the right to speak out can be, and the dangers of these rights being eroded.
The Ballad of St. John’s Car Park demonstrates that while “it’s easy to feel hopeless when trying to make social change, things do improve if people are active.” says Hirst. In a time of increasing societal division, it also carries a message of solidarity. “We don’t need to be divided. Things can get very confrontational on social media. But, actually, there’s so much that could be improved if we came together a bit more.”
Theatre writer, critic and International Editor at The Stage
Photo credit: Roswitha Chesher