© Fotocad

© Fotocad

Sam Bennett

During the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, poor African Americans – paid low wages yet asked for disproportionately high rent – would host house parties and collect money from guests in order to keep a roof over their heads. These bashes, which have inspired the Darren Pritchard-directed Rent Party, would see the likes of jazz greats Fats Waller and James P Johnson deliver the music. They were joyous gatherings, explains dancer and choreographer Pritchard, with tap dancing, singers and trumpet players. “They were also frowned upon by the bourgeois black folk in America because some of them were real kind of ghetto.”

Darren Pritchard

Darren Pritchard

Coming to Liverpool’s Homotopia festival in November, Rent Party is a musical showing what it means to be black, poor and gay in Britain today; a story of QPoC [queer people of colour] and their allies set in this county’s current political climate. “Being a gay, UK, black, working-class guy, I wanted to be able to do a show that tells our story.” Added to this, in Pritchard’s industry, queer artists of colour are “not afforded the opportunities that everybody else gets – I wanted to create roles for performers like myself”.

He refers to Rent Party – which began life as a site-specific show in a Salford block of flats – as “extremely gay”. I ask if that in any way links to the Harlem Renaissance parties. “I just used the concept of the rent party – I don’t know how queer they were.” He points, though, to the New York drag balls taking place back then, calling the time one “of innovation, of oppressed communities doing something flamboyant as opposed to sitting in misery. I think it was a real cultural and sexual revolution.” From this we might “presume there would have been gay rent parties – there would have been a drag queen needing to buy a frock”.

The Rent Party performers (“two straight girls and three gay guys”) are telling their own stories. There’s Kamille, a recently engaged young mum who also works in a supermarket. There’s Jason from Wolverhampton (“ex-Starlight Express, a seasoned performer”). Stuart is the party’s “charismatic” host, and Lenai has not long graduated from university. The newest artist is Tolu, a gigging musician who also helps run Manchester’s Rainbow Noir – a safe space for QPoC. “Quite a diverse range of people,” the director says, “and a diverse range of stories.” What connects them all, though, is that they are people of colour and poor.

He tells me working on Rent Party has been very different to working on “a so-called traditional show” where the script rigidly determines the way the cast dance. Further, in this case he feels less like a director and more paternal towards his performers “because they’re sharing their own personal stories and being so brave – there are some hard-hitting stories. I’ve had to learn to give them agency over what they do and don’t say. There’s stuff I may want them to reveal but they may not feel comfortable. As a director, instead of arguing, I have to respect the lines they draw. I said to them, ‘It’s your story so anything you don’t feel comfortable with saying onstage, don’t say.’ I’ve learned how to be patient and a bit more empathetic than I would be on a normal ‘here’s-a-script’ gig.”

We’ve a way to go in terms of tolerance and acceptance, he states, speaking of the “staunch racism” existent within the queer community. “When marginalised groups start marginalising people within that, I just think that’s not the way it should go.” He then speaks of the recent controversy concerning Queens of Pop’s online parody of Will.i.am; deemed by certain viewers to be racist, it led to the comedy duo pulling out of their appearance at Manchester Pride this year. “Instead of the gay community going, ‘Actually, there was a section of our community that was highly offended by this,’ they started defending it. I understand that you can defend something and you’ve got an opinion, but why not just go, ‘Ah, actually this is a problem, how can we all move forward together?’ It’s the same with trans and female rights within the community as well. We need to lead with a bit of love.”

Rent Party is at Liverpool’s Unity Theatre 7 November.

homotopia.net | darrenpritcharddance.com

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