WAITING FOR MYSELF TO APPEAR
By Michael McMillan
Actress: Esther Niles
Waiting for Myself to Appear was an immersive play performed at the Museum of the Home in October 2019. This a review of the play by one of our Almshouse Tour Guides, Tony Grant.
The title of Michael McMillan’s one woman play, “Waiting For Myself To Appear”, makes the statement for the West Indian community. It could also be a comment about the future of the Museum itself. The new galleries, soon to be opened, will engage visitors with the experiences and the lives of ethnic groups in the Hoxton and Shoreditch area. Those people will be “appearing”.
The play begins in one of the upstairs rooms in the almshouse. Alisha Gumbs, a museum assistant greets us. We are told about Sir Robert Geffrye and the beginnings of the almshouse. In the 18th century slavery was how Britain grew powerful and wealthy and the almshouses were partly financed by the proceeds of slavery. Alisha asks us to consider the importance and value of museums and about the things we find in museums. She shows us one such artefact, Ernest Baker’s diary written between 1881 and 1882 . He was the son of the Reverend Henry Baker, the chaplain of the almshouses at that time. In the diary, Ernest mentions his mother being born in Jamaica into a family which included Lord Belmore the governor of Jamaica, and how, when she was orphaned she was sent back to Britain with her, “black nurse”. This is the only mention of the nurse, just those two words.
Alisha Gumbs introduces us to Mary Anne Belmore, the imagined name for that black nurse and relates the heart-breaking demands made on her life. We hear about Mary Anne’s ancestors through the centuries living in Britain and some of the prejudices they encountered. Imagine a black woman going into Selfridges to “buy things that give me pleasure”. We see the photographs of relatives, friends and acquaintances and listen to and dance along to Bessie Smith on the gramophone. There are personal and intimate moments like this throughout the play.
Alisha is the present day relative of Mary Anne and we hear about her ambitions and experiences. We dance to Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves”, a comment about struggles between the police and so-called thieves on the street. We hear again of her passion for museums and she asks us about our experiences of museums. We hear about the prejudice black people suffer, whether through the attitudes of the NHS, affordable housing, sleeping rough or misunderstandings about the lives of ethnic minorities. People are often dealt with using aggressive measures. Then there are her hopes and dreams and the life she enjoys, the clubs, being DJ Ebony and having to deal with the question,
“ Where are you from?”
The play Michael McMillan has written is a social commentary on multicultural Britain today and by connecting that story to the Museum, he has shown us the importance of our museum and why it is relevant.
Alisha has waited for herself to appear.
Michael McMillan has written and produced performance pieces for the Royal Court, Channel 4, BBC Radio Drama and across the UK. He uses an interdisciplinary approach including devised performance, installations and mixed media. His performances have taken place in site responsive and public places. He has been a professor and visiting lecturer at various universities and is the professor in creative writing at the University of the Arts London.
Waiting for myself to appear marks the return of Michael to the Geffrye after his acclaimed exhibition The West Indian Front Room at the museum in 2005 which continues as The Front room (2005 – ongoing).
Esther Niles is the wonderful actress who plays Alisha Gumbs, a gallery assistant and also plays the part of Mary Anne, the West Indian maid. She trained at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and has performed for the RSC and in various Shakespeare plays.
Written by Tony Grant, Almshouse Tour Guide
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