In conversation with Tony Cealy: Theatre Practitioner, Cultural Producer, Activist.

| Azad Sharma

We’ve been writing a lot about theatre practices that utilise elements of co-production to bring the community onto the stage, so social issues can be ‘played out’ and ‘acted’ in order to encourage and influence change. 

In London, there is perhaps no one who embodies this complete commitment to move the arts into a social setting more than Tony Cealy who has an entire oeuvre spanning nearly three decades of international work.

Tony is the founder of the 492 Korna Klub, a weekly improvised radio show that explores the lives of a family that came to England during Windrush. He is also the brains behind the forthcoming 81 Acts of Exuberant Defiance which will commemorate the 40th anniversary of 1981 Brixton Uprising by using the entire borough of Lambeth as a stage for 81 acts of an open play. The play will discuss the issues that lead to many taking to the streets to express themselves. 

We caught up with Tony at the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton, London, to find out more about his work and what we can expect from him in the future. 

Tell us about yourself and your work

I’m a Brixton-based artist that has been using mainly drama and theatre to engage communities and explore the conflicts, hotspots, difficulties and challenges that exist and blight communities and neighbourhoods. I’m using my art to bring about change in communities whether that’s by helping them get their voices out there or to ensure their opinions are heard. I also want them to make some work that is interesting, fun, memorable. 

Who’s been your greatest inspiration or influence? 

My peer-mentor: Chris Johnston. He’s got a few books out at the moment called ‘Drama Games For Those Who Like To Say No’ and ‘The House of Games’ amongst others. Chris is a theatre director I met in the late 80s/early 90s and I started working with him doing probation workshops for young people who were coming in and out of the criminal justice system. We were designing theatre shows and using drama to stop  young people coming back to prison or getting back on drugs or in debt. He’s been a huge inspiration because of the way he used improvisation and engaged people, but also through designing participatory engagement tools that were changed and adapted to use amongst communities. 

What’s the story behind the 492 Korna Klub?

The name of the 492 Korna Klub is based on the 492 people that came to the UK during the Windrush back in 1948. The story is about a family that arrived in London during the early 60s and grew up connected to a local community centre. The story is about a family taking on the management of the community centre and the traditions and cultural issues within our communities but also how they dealt with the social problems. 

It’s a weekly radio drama that you can hear live on Galaxy FM (102.5 fm) every Friday between 5 and 6pm. There are loads of radio dramas out there but often they’re pre-recorded plays. I wanted to do a show where you could hear something that was improvised by a cast of community performers. I wanted to have a radio drama that was a bit more on the ground for the communities that I live in.

 I started trying to create it during the 80s and 90s and whilst it didn’t happen then I knew it was only a matter of time. Early 2000s, I got the idea that I would find the right radio station that was willing to take the risk to work with an improvised radio series.  It’s an on-going series and has been running for the last 5 and a half years. 

It’s been a real challenge because we’ve got a mix of 25-40 performers, 4 or 5 of whom who might be available at any given Friday. What people find unique about it is after we play out the radio drama the listeners have an opportunity to ring in at the end and speak to the characters. That’s what I call ‘Radio of the Oppressed’, or forum-theatre on the radio. I wanted to ensure listeners can call in and be involved by expressing their thoughts and feelings on what they’re listening to. 

Can you tell us about your new project 81 Acts of Exuberant Defiance? What’s the story behind it and what can we expect from it?

The context is that I’m a 54 year old man who participated in the 1981 Brixton Uprising. The 35th anniversary of the Uprising, was commemorated at the Black Cultural Archives. It was a lovely evening, there was some conversation about what people remembered and they screened some clips of the Uprising. I had the idea of using theatre to re-enact and breathe life back into the memory of the Uprising. I sat on that idea for a year or so. Then I spoke to a dear friend of mine Chloe Osbourne. She’s an amazing artist. We decided to make the project happen. 

Two years from now it will be the 40th anniversary of the Uprising and we want to do a commemorative and celebratory event for Brixton to shine a light on what happened in that moment. We decided to conduct a series of consultations with the local community to ask them ‘do you remember this? what was it like for you?, looking back at it now what do you think?’ So, we conducted these consultations with loads of members of the community and we got funding for that from the Edge Fund

Today we have 76 people who are from the local community who are in the steering group to push this project forward. Chloe and I are just curators. Over the last 12 months we’ve been meeting local community partners, Black Cultural Archives, Raw Material, 198 Gallery, Photofusion, and local community groups, housing associations, businesses to ask them if they want to be involved with it. 

The project stems from an idea to create 81 acts of Exuberant Defiance in 2021. The acts themselves can be anything. The steering group will probably create 20 to 30 acts that people can apply for funding for and help them bring the act to life. It could be a small poetry night, a kitchen takeover, or a massive Windrush ship coming down Brixton high road. There will also be another 30 to 40 acts which you can just generally apply to be involved in. It’s for anybody who wants to do something about the 81 Uprising because there isn’t anything for Brixton to commemorate this moment in its history like that. 

Aside from curating the 81 Acts, how will you be participating in it?

I’m going to be doing a ‘human library’ where I gather people the stories of those who have lived experience of 81. Once their stories are  recorded, I want to ensure it’s part of the fabric of Brixton so I’m going to create an App to go with it. So, when you walk to a particular place it’ll pop up with a notification and give you that piece of recorded history.  It’s about creating a means by which people can engage with 81 Acts and make something 

We had a great time talking to Tony and learning about his story and various projects. His lively charisma and passionate commitment to community theatre and arts is infectious. After meeting with us, Tony sent over the graphic below which shows how 81 Acts will work. If you’d like to get in touch with Tony or find out more about his work, his website is a great point of call.

Photos by Tony Cealy and by David Anderson

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