Raising Lazarus by Kat Francois
At Rich Mix, Kat Francois told us a story about the search for a recently discovered relative; by extension, she invited all British citizens with black and - specifically - Caribbean ancestry to re-forge links with the (golden) chains of their forefathers.
The stage was set sparsely: on one side was an overturned soapbox and a row of sand-bags under a Union Flag; on the other, a table of books under a Grenadian flag. In-between (on the back wall) was a white cyc for the projected photographs and filmed footage charting her investigative travelogue.
With her vast experience as an ‘open mic’ host, poet and raconteur, Miss Francois effortlessly made those attending feel welcome, and introduced us to the topic in hand: her pursuit of one ‘Lazarus Francois’, a long lost - and almost forgotten - relative who left his native Grenada to serve for the ‘mother country’ in the British army in the First World War.
Francois invites us to see ourselves - and the older generation we still have around us - differently, to fully grasp our present by casting aside the self-imposed shackles of ‘shame’ and ‘secrecy’ that stultify the branches of so many black / Caribbean family trees, and to actively engage with our full and amazing history.
Using poetry, letters, imagined dialogue, and real-life experiences, she then took us on a journey from complete ignorance of her ancestor (who her partner unwittingly unearthed), through the gentle questioning of her ‘Gran’ (a wonderful evocation of a Caribbean elder), to committed investigations inside the Imperial War Museum, Southwark, and her full-on ’expedition’ to Grenada.
With relatives still able - and willing - to furnish Kat with enough information to proceed, she skillfully wove these stories and documents to - not only help continue the search, but also to construct her wonderfully theatrical scenes. These included an emotional farewell between Lazarus and his almost-betrothed (‘Dusu’), and a funny near-death experience as her search reached Grenada. Of these vignettes, my favourite was a monologue by ’Nurse Barton’ - a white, English First World War nurse who had kept a diary detailing her experiences working in Lazarus’ regiment at the time. Simple, affecting, and beautifully performed, I found it a particularly moving paean to human equality.
Another highlight was the counterpoint between her present-day marathon training in Grenada, and Lazarus’ (imagined) boxing match against a white, racist fellow-army recruit in 1915.
Raising Lazarus by Kat Francois
There were also interesting metaphysical questions posed: in 1915, 19 soldiers died on basic training in England, and who are buried thousands of miles from the Caribbean; where do their ‘souls’ reside? Great Britain (the Motherland), Grenada (their mother’s land), or somewhere in between?
Not everything hits the mark; there were times when the momentum slowed, not least towards the end (which I shan’t give away). But maybe that’s the point: is there need for a huge ‘reveal’ when the journey forward is the goal in, and of, itself? Besides, if it works for Mark Thomas…
Alongside clear and effective staging and sound, Kat Francois has used her skills as a poet, actor, singer, and playwright to remind us that to investigate ones’ lineage is not the exclusive preserve of the white middle class, of celebrity-obsessed documentarians, or - dare I say it - of Alex Haley. Indeed, she invites us to see ourselves - and the older generation we still have around us - differently, to fully grasp our present by casting aside the self-imposed shackles of ‘shame’ and ‘secrecy’ that stultify the branches of so many black / Caribbean family trees, and to actively engage with our full and amazing history.
As recent events - and judicial declarations - in such places as Ferguson, Missouri have shown us, certain groups will continue to treat each other in a way that works for them; surely this can only change when - and if - those groups for whom it doesn’t work, start seeing themselves differently.
Miss Francois urges us, not only to seek different answers, but to ask different questions… while we still can.