Pauline Mayers’s What If I Told You @ WYP’s Barber Studio


Image taken from the West Yorkshire Playhouse website

As soon as we entered the (very) warm West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Barber Studio – we are greeted and asked to put our bags and drinks down and label them as ours so that we can take part in the performance. Having seen the scratch show version and through conversations with my spies who had seen it the night before, I knew this was going to be a full-participation kind of show. Something that often divides audiences such as it did with this one; there was some grumbling and muttering from various people, but as always in a theatre no one wants to be THAT person. Aside from those who were perhaps not feeling they could cope with the constant moving around, the audience embraced this and entered the space that is usually only for performers.

As Pauline Mayers entered the space, she put us all at ease and created a safe space. I’d even go as far as to suggest it was the ultimate safe space! I for one have seldom felt more at home in a space. She begins in a drama workshop-style, but assures us this will be anything but. She suggests that we close our eyes and breathe. That we listen and become aware of our surroundings. We are all in this together, this single moment, and we should be aware of that.

We sat on the floor at her request and she navigated her way between us all. Spinning. Jumping. Rolling. Stepping. The audience followed her sure-footed movements and one very noticeable thing happened – nobody moved! Nobody flinched. She had put us all so at ease with her and the space that even as her foot flew over the top of my head I knew that I was safe. Not only was she a pro, she was, as she asked us to be, completely aware of her surroundings.

An important part of the show was Pauline telling her story. Pauline’s history as a black woman and as a dancer. She takes us from the conception of the show back to her childhood and then asks us to travel with her through key points in her life. Some of these points are things that might be seen as small such as an incident on a bus where a gentleman ‘accidentally’ pulls on her hair. Some are much bigger and a hell of a lot more poignant like when she is bearing her soul to a teacher at Rambert school of dance. The show is not an autobiographical one though as she allows us snapshots of her past, before we are whisked of to the present or further back to a different past.

We also travel to the 1800s, a time when James Marion Sims was a practicing surgeon. He is known and praised as the ‘father of modern gynaecology’, but less known for his methods of developing his techniques, which involved buying African-American women as slaves to experiment on. I won’t delve into the horrors he committed; you can research them for yourself or better yet see What If I Told You, but they are akin to something you might see in American Horror Story. (Ryan Murphy, there’s your next idea! I’ll take my fee by cheque, thanks.)

The first part ends and we are let out for a breather, to refill our drinks etc, then we are invited back into the Barber Studio. Pauline, at this point, is nowhere to be seen. We are instead invited to sit back on the floor with Khadijah Ibrahiim and engage in a discussion about what we have just experienced and how we felt about this. This is another thing potentially detrimental to the piece, as a free discussion could not really take place if the artist is sat right in front of you. Khadijah facilitates this perfectly – creating a safe space for discourse but also knowing when it needs to be moved forward and doing this without being overtly forceful. As she said when she began to wrap things up, these sorts of discussions only really begin to take off after the first half hour and we were unfortunately limited for time. What If I Told You was a very well rounded show. It never lingered more than it needed but gave us enough to think on and to keep wanting more. It is one of the best pieces of performance I have seen in a while. I’ve been wanting to see Pauline perform for a few years now and to finally have the chance was an absolute pleasure! If this is her legacy then it is one that she can well be proud of. I can’t wait to see what else the future has in store for her and this show… a national tour? We can only hope!

For more information on the Furnace Festival, visit the West Yorkshire Playhouse website.