Preview: Poet in da Corner at Hackney Empire
PUBLISHED: 11:56 26 February 2020 | UPDATED: 11:57 26 February 2020
Copyright Helen Murray 2020
East Londoner Debris Stevenson brings her semi autobiographical show about dyslexia and self discovery to the Empire
Debris Stevenson's grime infused play Poet in da Corner is inspired by Dizzee Rascal's Mercury Prize-winning first album.
Set to run at the Hackney Empire from March 31 to April 4 it stars grime MC Jammz alongside Stevenson and tells the partly autobiographical story of a young girl silenced by her dyslexia and frustrated by her strict Mormon family. That is until Rascal's Boy in Da Corner opens her up to the heady, liberating world of grime and changes her life forever.
We asked the Ilford-raised performer: How did you come to make the play?
Grime came at a time when I was struggling with a lot of things. Being a teenager isn't easy but especially when you're growing up Mormon; there aren't many Mormons in this country, so it was quite isolating. At school I was struggling with reading (which I found out at 21 was due to severe dyslexia), struggling with being on my own and struggling with being bullied. Suddenly grime gave me the permission to feel rage. The imagery and the language was from East London where I lived. Specifically, Dizzee Rascal. He was a teenager when he wrote Boy in da Corner and was trying to understand the conflict around him just as I was. By the time I was 25 grime was having a renaissance, but the media was often crudely reducing it's narrative as one and the same with violence. I was teaching at university and realised that grime, which is really the reason I'm a writer, is as technically skilled and happened with less resources and less celebration than the 'great art' I was teaching. So, it came from feeling like things were really unjust and the need to return to my origins.
What are the challenging aspects of performing a work that is part autobiographical?
'What's your story?' is such a difficult question. I was navigating other people's stories and in the show I address what that means, what are the prejudices, what stories do I have the right to tell, from what lens am I telling that story, as much as it might feel like mine - is it? I spoke to my brothers about what they felt comfortable with and they've been generous. My parents haven't come to see the show and I've had a lot of conversations with myself about that. They have a very different background to me; they didn't surpass GCSEs, they're not in the art world and the show isn't church standard so it contains things they would not want to see. I came to the conclusion that it's not a show they would go to, but I also have a responsibility to start enabling them to learn about what I do so hopefully one day they will understand.
Aside from Dizzee Rascal, what other artists inspire you?
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D Double E, Kano and Wiley. Some amazing younger artists like Mez and Snowy from Nottingham. Poetry wise I feel I'm part of a close-knit community; people who have mentored me my whole life like Kayo Chingonyi, Jacob Sam Le Rose, Charlie Dark, then Inua Ellams and Kate Tempest who I was lucky to grow up alongside in the poetry scene.
I'm also inspired by American poets like Patricia Smith, Danez Smith, Terrence Hayes - people that fed into Hip Hop poetics. It's a tight community with whom I've shared a beautiful experience and I've felt really supported.
What advice do you give to performers who are dyslexic?
The world makes it tempting to build a narrative that it's your weakness, but where there is disruption there is an opportunity. When it comes to learning difficulties, I believe it's society that disables you, and the education system is narrow in the way that it presents information. Having dyslexia makes going from A to B difficult. But in that disruption lies an opportunity to think, 'how do I get from A to B?' I think that's led to me being the strange/innovative artist I am; I don't work in conventional ways because I've never been able to. I am a poet because of my dyslexia. Asking a lot of stupid questions is a superpower of mine. My reading speed is below average but my ability to communicate is in the top 0.002 percent, so that gap in ability creates a lot of frustration.
Part of my dyslexia is not understanding words if I don't understand their context or intention, which for me is why poetry makes sense, because never do words have more context or meaning or power than in a poem. Also, they're short! They're like bath bombs: tightly wrapped orbs of colour and scent and when they hit water they explode into a galaxy of colour and smell.
What can audiences expect from the show?
Fun! My agent said 'Debris, everything you make is fun'. And I was like, 'yeah' I feel like people don't talk enough about fun. There's this weird thing I found in British academia whereby if something is clever it has to be dull. If grime is 'home' for you, I want it to feel like: 'welcome back'. And if it's not? Welcome! Have a cup of tea, sit down, have a Red Stripe! We're trying to make it feel like we're not trying to explain something to people who already get it but also that we're not excluding people who have no idea what it is, so it's a nice balance of comfort like any good artistic experience.
You are performing in East London for the first time?
Yeaaaaah! A lot of the team and I are from east and it's really beautiful to be doing it there. It's great that we performed at the Royal Court because the impetus of the show is that grime is artistically excellent and the best writers get in there, but East London - that's where grime was made, that's where I was made and I can't wait to come home.
Poet in da Corner runs at Hackney Empire from March 31 to April 4.