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I have serious problems trying to categorise this show. Talkshow, performance, dance… what shall I call it? That explosion of energy on an intimate stage only a few feet in front of me bowled me over, seduced me in, made me spend a night thinking about it.

Vanessa Macaulay’s Made Not Born at the Front Room in Central Croydon was part of the Croydonites Festival of New Theatre. The idea is to bring theatre and the performing arts closer to the people of Croydon, outside the obligatory cultural centre of all small cities.
The show started low-key, almost domestic – Vanessa sharing out one boiled egg, thirty grams of rice, a slice of ham, a handful of spinach, a piece of grilled chicken, no seasoning, into several plastic boxes. She ate one boxful. Strange, I thought. What next?

But Vanessa was making a point – about a childhood dominated by a rigorous body-building matriarch. No escape. The six times a day routines and the growing sense of otherness, being black, inescapable hair, and the regime at home. Nothing to do with being Nigerian, but that surfaces in the ebony ceiling as she grows up.

The exhortation – be ambitious, but not too much; be successful, but not too much… Like the Spice Girls, there are things to want, but circumscribed by being in this straitjacket –  not born into it, but made by the society. Also by mother.

Vanessa changed clothes, changed personality, did her body routines and shouted instructions to herself. Breathed hard. She generated an angry energy and didn’t stop for a moment. The joke was on the society, which forces a person into a box. I heard several in the audience snigger, chortle. As an immigrant myself, though without the Afro hair, I have felt the sharp edges of those boxes and I am squirming inside there with her.

This was not a performance from which you could zone off for a moment – find that chewing gum, open your can of Coke. It got under your skin, made you wonder how many black, ‘other’ Greta Thunbergs, Yousafzai Malalas, are sacrificed to that powerful god of homogeneity and belonging by birth and appearance. 

When Vanessa Macaulay at the end danced into the rows of audience to the tune of the Spice Girls’ Wannabe, some in the audience joined in. It seemed that her energy was following me out into St George’s Walk when I left.

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“Do not relax! Do not relax!” cried performer Vanessa Macaulay. And I certainly didn’t – couldn’t – as I watched her remarkable one-woman show, Made Not Born, at The Front Room in St George’s Walk on Saturday 11th May.
Made Not Born presented Macaulay’s formative years in a series of dislocated screenshot-like glimpses.  Some of these were actual screenshots on a screen set up on stage: we watched her mother’s career in professional body-building via photos from Facebook, alongside the comments they provoked: an uncomfortable mixture of admiration nudging up to creepy, apologetic sexualisation. 
The command “Do not relax!” referred to the tension required to show off a professional bodybuilder’s muscle tone – but reverberated through the whole show. There was the alienating day Macaulay’s Afro hair was treated as ‘wacky’ in a school ‘wacky hair’ day, and her first, unsuccessful ballet lesson, experienced as a tangle of language and culture. Born on the day of black teenager Stephen Lawrence’s racist murder in south east London, Macaulay’s childhood world was conflicted: what is strength? What is beauty? How do I succeed? How can I belong?.. and of course, that most vital dilemma for any little girl in the late 1990s – which Spice Girl should I be?
Food stalked the stage: Macaulay ate from the protein-packed supplies that a body-builder requires (“four boiled eggs – no seasoning. A handful of spinach – no seasoning...”) during the show. The body positive movement has brought us a long way from my own teenage years – a blur of vicious diets – but that was in a time when for a woman to be seen to eat at all was transgressive. Now women eat, but Macaulay’s stack of boxes still worried me a lot. They contained power foods, eaten to transform into muscle – but the sight of a day’s supply packed up in tightly sealed containers sends a deeply troubling message to me. 
Macaulay didn’t go there – didn’t bring us any answers – and I wished that she had. For me, wanting more as the curtain falls is becoming a theme of the Croydonites Festival 2019. Perhaps I should ask why it’s difficult to sit with all my questions. 
There’s a discussion on Facebook right now about following performances with dialogue between audience and performer, and I’d love to see it happen. And on that same thread, a friend of mine has excellently captured this show: “a complex performance with many layers, both in spoken word and body language”.