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The Spinning Wheel is a new performance inspired by the life, art and activism of Steve Ben Israel and written and performed by his son, Baba Israel. Steve Ben was a New York jazz musician, countercultural activist, stand-up comedian and core member of the famous performance collective the Living Theatre. Baba is a New York hip-hop artist and theatre maker. The Spinning Wheel is co-created by Baba (writer and performer), me (director) and Yako 440 (musical director).

Steve Ben passed away in 2012. Soon after this Baba approached me with an idea to develop a piece of theatre exploring his dad’s enormous archive. He wanted the work to be many things – a gift from son to father, a way of dealing with his grief, a homage to one of New York’s unsung heroes, a dialogue with over 50 years of archival material, a multimedia exhibition and an opportunity to celebrate the radical history of the countercultural arts scene of New York’s Lower East Side that Baba grew up among. If I had realised the scale of Baba’s vision, I may have been a little daunted, but I believe in the power of performance to create spaces where people can confront and start to process difficult emotions. Recognising a kindred soul in Baba, we began to work.

Before making this show Baba and I didn’t know each other very well. He had programmed my work, It’s Like He’s Knocking, while working as artistic director and CEO at Contact Theatre Manchester (2011-14). The show was an intimate solo performance, interweaving stories from the life of my grandfather, my father and me. I’d made it following the death of my own father. Baba had also seen a large scale performance I’d made with Contact Young Actors Company called The Third Side (Contacting the World Festival 2012). This piece looked at the reasons behind the 2011 uprisings that swept England after the police killing of Mark Duggan in Tottenham. It explored the themes and possible effects of a whole generation void of a sense of connection to that which they’re taught they should aspire towards. It attacked our consumer-driven society and the impact that the neoliberal doctrine might be having on our sense of personal societal responsibility. Both works use participating artists’ autobiographical experience as source material and both focus on the intersection between personal ethics and political action – something at the centre of Steve Ben’s life and The Spinning Wheel.

“Steve Ben’s channel was the absurd poetics and madcap comedy reminiscent of Lord Buckley and the early work of Robin Williams.”

Though I never met Steve Ben, I had the pleasure of getting to know him through his archive and through Baba’s generosity within the creative process. By all accounts (and there are many), Steve Ben lived by his mantra ‘To be a mensch, that is the answer”. In Yiddish, “mensch” means a person of integrity and honour. I remember hearing someone talking about the comedian Bill Hicks after his death. They said that he was like Jesus Christ at his angriest. I believe Steve Ben shared this energy, this burning fire, the need to transform our society into a freer, more creative, equal place, but instead of angry humour, his channel was the absurd poetics and madcap comedy reminiscent of Lord Buckley and the early work of Robin Williams.

The Spinning Wheel is a ritual, a call to arms, which seeks to conjure the energy of political change. It remixes the past and present, engaging with the politics of today – from the Occupy movement struggling against global economic inequality, to the bullying oppression felt by the Palestinian nation and the Black Lives Matter movement demanding recognition of the systemic racism present with America and the global north – asking us to accept our personal culturally inherited responsibility and enter into difficult dialogue. Although the piece confronts these often overwhelming themes, I hope that the deeply autobiographical content and the stripped-back presenting style is both disarming and inspiring. We aim to connect the personal with the political and to enter into this political arena with generosity of spirit. I hope that the piece entertains, enlivens, screams out against oppression and celebrates in one deeply felt breath.

During the three years we’ve been working on The Spinning Wheel, we’ve developed a truly integrated collaboration. We have been through very difficult emotions. The whole team has made this work happen (including musical director Yako 440, dramaturg Talvin Wilks and filmmaker Richard Ramchurn) and I hope that the outcome is a deeply felt, original mix of forms creating a multi-layered, politically charged, emotionally honest, generous and humorous expression of love and rage.

The Spinning Wheel is at the Roundhouse, London (3-5 June), Mac, Birmingham (9 June) and Contact, Manchester (11 June)

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Leo Kay

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