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How the arts can teach us to be better humans

Coming to England at Birmingham Rep Theatre

I’ve had two lightbulb experiences recently, both a result of engaging with the arts.

The first was during Coming to England at Birmingham Rep Theatre last week, the story of Floella Benjamin’s journey from Trinidad to England, and the prejudice she and her family encountered. Of course there was more to her life and to the story than prejudice, but slurs, insults, being chased out of church, and people reporting her family to the police because of the colour of their skin, were a significant part of the play.

Young Floella has an aha moment as she’s about to unleash her ferociously angry response on an ignorant boy. During what she calls a “spiritual experience”, she understands that in engaging with his ignorance, she risks everything. She gets in touch with an extraordinary inner strength, and begins to live more and more by this strength.

It is an utterly inspiring story, and such an important one. I am not black and haven’t encountered the same prejudice Floella has, but I understood something profound watching this - about her experience, and about my own fragility and potential capacity for strength in the face of injustice.

The second experience was watching CODA, the Oscar-winning film about the titular Child of Deaf Adults, Ruby, and her journey to become a singer. Ruby is the only hearing member of a deaf family who run a fishing business, and as their informal interpreter, she acts as a bridge between them and the hearing world. Pursuing her dream of going to music college to study singing threatens this bridge and begins to drive distance between her and her family.

Without wanting to introduce spoilers, there’s a moment in the school choir concert that made my breath stop, I found it such a paradigm shift. I loved this film for its treatment of singing, which is usually portrayed in the media as some “gift” that only the super “talented” possess, and thereby, ironically, diminished.

I wrote the blog post So You Think You Can't Sing about that.

It’s so much more complex than that, and the “talent” narrative is so disempowering to all those who would like to have singing in their lives, but have been told it’s not for them.

I also love accessibility - I get really excited about introducing professionally-performed music to audiences of babies and toddlers from ALL backgrounds and their grown ups.

CODA’s exploration of the world - including the world of music - from a deaf perspective - is fascinating. I can't comment on the film from a deaf point of view - if you do have that experience I'd love to know what you thought. As a hearing person I think it would be hard to watch this film and not become more aware of the deaf experience.

See it if you can. You can sign up to Apple TV on a free trial for 7 days, £4.49 for a month. (You’ll need to remember to cancel the subscription unless you want to continue it.) Both of these encounters with the arts took me out of my own experience through a compelling telling of a story, inviting me to live in someone else's skin for a couple of hours. This is what we do at B'Opera. We tell important stories that awaken the imagination and invite you and your little ones to step into another world or another character and imagine what it's like to be them.

As George Bernard Shaw says, "Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will."

Zoë Challenor is the Director of B'Opera

B'Opera create beautiful music for tiny ears through interactive musical adventures for young children, a relaxed concert series, and regular First Songs workshops.


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