The healing power of words

In the form of Sukina Douglas, KVS is adding an international face to the Brussels city theatre’s open ensemble. She has travelled halfway around the world as a poet, rapper and performer, inspiring people everywhere with the power of her words. Along with Muneera Rashida, she is one half of the London-based hip hop duo Poetic Pilgrimage. The Malcolm X production – which will be revived next season at KVS and on tour – was their theatrical debut.

The Malcolm X theatre concert was one of last season’s most talked-about productions in Flanders. What did it mean to you to be a part of it, and to perform a play like this at KVS?
SD:The fact that the initiative came from an established institution like KVS – with a ‘royal’ history – was incredibly important. A theme like Malcolm X is always going to be impressive and meaningful and fragile, but above all a serious risk. I can only admire the fact that KVS dared to take that risk, and to make a production like that to kick off of its new management under Michael De Cock.
In the run up to the performance, discussions with the ‘community’ were held in Le Space, there were open rehearsals so that people could come and watch, we staged after-work parties with DJs, and so on. People were involved in the process in all kinds of ways, and I thought that was really great. Never before – not even in England – have I experienced an institution like KVS approaching people and entering into a dialogue with them about a performance while it is still being created. And this is extremely relevant, because the figure of Malcolm X mirrors so many people: people with African roots, with an immigrant background, Muslims, activists, people who are socially engaged, and so on… and of course, more broadly, music- and theatre-lovers too.

Has this experience changed your presence on stage?
Absolutely. Malcolm X was one of the most radical and creative experiences I have ever had. It has truly changed my life – it was so far out of my comfort zone, so radically different to anything I had done previously! The way I perform now is completely different, and what I bring to it is also different. Collaborating with the three theatre-makers (Junior Mthombeni, Fikry El Azzouzi and Cesar Janssens - ed.) and the other performers led to fresh creative and theatrical ideas. I am really looking forward to going on tour. 

The idea for ‘Rise Up’ – the interactive poetry project that commemorates the Brussels attacks – also originated from your performance in Malcolm X. What did you want to achieve with ‘Rise Up’?
SD: The aim of ‘Rise Up’ was for us to go out and about in Brussels, to immerse ourselves in the city and its residents, and to enter into dialogue with a variety of different people and places. Particularly with people whose voices are rarely heard. Together with city dramaturge Kristin Rogghe and social-cultural worker Hajar Ibnouthen, I spoke with undocumented migrants, unaccompanied minor refugees and people living in poverty; but also with Eurocrats and lawyers. After these discussions and a series of “pre-workshops” we brought the people together for an intense poetry weekend, in which we wrote about the Brussels attacks of 22 March. This was very powerful, and highly emotional too. On the anniversary of the attacks, we held a “Poetic Memorial” during which participants were able to share their texts. It was so healing and inspiring to hear all these different stories from Brussels, but also to feel that people from many different walks of life are all wrestling with the things that are going on with the world today. And to work out how we can support one another in this. 

You will definitely be able to continue these discussions in the course of the new theatre season, with the Malcolm X tour and a new edition of ‘Rise Up’. But also through ‘Mindblowers’, a brand new joint project with the VUB.
SD: What I value greatly about KVS is its open-minded approach, its eagerness to reach out to people and to forge ties. It’s like an octopus with multiple tentacles. People often fail to appreciate the impact that art can have. ‘Mindblowers’ is a fantastic initiative that connects art to education and activism. In any case, I regard the art world and the academic world as spaces for discussion that are not separate entities.
The theme for ‘Mindblowers’ is ‘resistance’, which is also essential for both myself and Muneera, my artistic partner in crime. In a certain sense, everything we stand for in Poetic Pilgrimage is resistance. As black women, as Muslim women, and as women, we are opposed to norms and stereotypes that limit us. Bring together all these intersections and you have a very interesting dialogue. These days, that’s what it’s all about.