Threadmash. November 2019. The Gift.

With thanks to the Threadmash Crew, especially Rohan Candappa, and to fellow Threadmasher Ian Louis Harris for featuring this on his OgBlog

The subject for our latest gathering was “The Gift” Here is my contribution. Or gift, if you like.

The Gift. Bobo

The Holme Lane Theatre Company – HLTC – specialised in Dickensian tales of poverty and suffering. Inspired by…

…well…

…Charles Dickens’ tales of poverty and suffering.

Their performances always featured a fierce heroine; Olivia Twist or Nicola Nickleby, who overcame tyranny and liberated the oppressed. This heroine was always slight of build, sharp-witted and fleet of foot. Uncannily like a certain small, skinny girl who always came top of the class and had to run fast to escape the thick bully boys in the neighbourhood.

The cast of HLTC, a motley collection of dolls and soft toys, would rehearse in my attic playroom in Hillsborough, Sheffield, and then head out on tour, which involved moving the entire production down to the living room to play to a captive (as opposed to captivated) audience of long-suffering grown ups, or GUs as we shall call them.

Bobo joined the cast in September 1961. A birthday gift from Granny. The first black doll in our company. She turned out to be the Russian doll of gifts. Which is weird because you don’t come across many black Russians….not outside of a cocktail menu, anyway.

Bobo the doll was just the wrapper around the gift of layers of learning.

Bobo gift 1: Golly has to go. With her movable arms, head and legs and her eyes which closed when she lay down, Bobo was a far more versatile performer than Golly, who just flopped about the place with a fixed grin. And, to be honest, in spite of being rocketed to stardom after having been featured on the side of a jam jar, Golly’s place in the company had been uncertain for some time. Some of our audience did not approve, even threatened to boycott performances, and with Bobo’s arrival… things became very awkward. No. Bobo most certainly could not be expected to work alongside Golly. This was perhaps the only time in history that a black female was given precedence over a male of any hue.

Bobo gift 2: Fluidity in representations of gender.

With Golly gone, there were no male cast members. So we became an all-female theatre company. Male characters, if we must have them, were played by girl dolls. In 1961. Yes, The Holme Lane Theatre company was way ahead of its time.

Bobo Gift 3. Questioning the concept of gendered naming:

Bobo arrived on a Tuesday. In conversation with Mr Baidu down the street, I learned that Bobo was Ghanaian for “Tuesday child”. I didn’t know that it was Ghanaian for “boy Tuesday child”. Nor did Bobo.

Bobo Gift 4. Heated debates on colonialism, cultural appropriation, integration, assimilation, ancestry, origin, custom. And more:

Some of the GUs argued that Bobo should have an English name, like the other dolls – Wendy, Susan, Lorraine, Katy. “She needs to feel that she belongs.” “Just because she’s black doesn’t mean she isn’t English.” Others defended her right to claim her ancestry….
It could be hard to get their attention back to the play; to Olivia Twist MP’s fight for workhouse reform or Dr Nicola Nickleby’s courageous work among child polio victims.

So, here’s to Bobo, probably the first black female to play the lead in a stage adaptation of a Dickens novel, who, 5 years before the race relations act, called out racism and reclaimed African culture from the colonial Brits, and who, decades ahead of the LGBTQ+ movement gave rise to an all-female, gender non-conforming, cross-dressing theatre company.

Not bad for a doll.