No place like home
High Wycombe in rural Buckinghamshire isn't all cricket and warm beer, Laura Ashley and Range Rovers. It is also Jamaica patties, samosas and bright colours under grey skies.
Michael McMillan has for the past year been working as a writer in residence in High Wycombe schools and community groups, exploring issues of race and identity. They are issues he lives and breathes. Although he was born and bred in High Wycombe, his parents came from the Caribbean island of St Vincent. In the early 1960s they found themselves, with many other West Indians, smack in the middle of a quintessentially English town. In those days, black and Asian immigrants lived in a ghetto, although schools were mixed. Today, the town and the schools are more racially diverse. But no matter how heterogeneous British society seems to have become, questions of cultural identity have not diminished in their importance to individuals.
Through the Southern Arts funded residency, Mr McMillan worked in three schools with year 10 drama students, spending a term in each. From the outset, he consulted the schools' heads of drama to make sure the project satisfied national curriculum requirements in improvisation skills for key stage 4, and fulfil aspects of the English syllabus.
As a point of departure, Mr McMillan embarked on an exploration of his own background. "I gave my own experience through a story I had written, to act as a catalyst for the project. I was demonstrating the many levels a writer works on, but also exploring the location of the self," he says.
Although Mr McMillan identifies himself as a black writer, the students learned that he continues to question his identity. Part of that is as a result of growing up as a black person in the Home Counties. Moreover, he asked the students to do the same. "I wanted them to question themselves, asking where they came from, where their roots were."
Class was as much an issue as culture, race and nationality. He found that when young people reached adolescence, their cultural identity became entrenched. "I encouraged them to celebrate their differences, and reminded them of their similarities, so they could question the world from a stronger position."
In one exercise he had the students bring in an object or photograph with close family associations. At first, there was resistance to this level of self-exposure, but as they went around the circle, something happened. In Mr McMillan's words, "they began to discover facts about each other they hadn't bothered to find out before. Silence took over as we heard stories associated with watches, earrings, necklaces and heirlooms given as presents from close relatives or friends who had died or gone away, or from parents who had divorced. It was moving and powerful, as the students stripped away the armour and revealed something deeply personal about themselves and their families. "
The students used their own stories as the basis for an improvisation, monologue or performance. Work focused on choosing, from these, stories small groups would enjoy working on and sticking with, ultimately to perform at the local arts centre, Spring Gardens, at the start of June. Work carried out during the sessions was observed and picked up on by drama teachers during their own lessons, providing continuity from one weekly session to the next.
The results offered compelling insights into these young people's backgrounds, even if the subject matter lacked some originality. Conflicts over teenage pregnancy, mixed relationships and child abuse are the stuff of soaps, whether the context is Asian, white or African-Caribbean.
But what made these sketches noteworthy was the realism and depth of characterisation. Here were teenagers playing the role of adults they lived with, who they rowed with, who they knew all too well.
And the pictures were not pretty. A lazy, beer-slugging black father calls his son's white girlfriend a tart when his bungling son tells him she is pregnant. An Asian father denies habitually hitting his teenage daughter even though she has the bruises to prove it. An Asian mother blames her daughter's newly-acquired waywardness on her white friend.
But rather than being an exploration of racism, this was instead a look at the cultural mores that cut across racial or national lines. These young people were showing an awareness of their backgrounds while being shown that the way those cultural values are expressed can be seen in other homes, where the backgrounds are different to their own.
Mr McMillan says schools are not doing this kind of work, and they should be. "The national curriculum doesn't easily allow issues of identity to emerge, " he says. "In some senses, it's like nothing has changed since I was at school. The problem remains - how to relate issues children are reading about in novels such as To Kill a Mockingbird to their lives and society today."