Jean Binta Breeze – The Wife of Bath Speaks in Brixton Market


There are two performers in this video. The first is acclaimed poet and performer, Jean Binta Breeze, reciting her funny, provocative poem The Wife of Bath Speaks in Brixton Market. The second performer is Brixton Market itself. The audience, depending on your viewpoint, is the "little black hole" of the camera lens or it is the many prying eyes that are behind that black hole, dispersed across the space of every connected location and time where the video is watched.

Breeze's performance, constructed from multiple takes within an unpredictable setting, is brave and accomplished. She adopts the persona of Chaucer's Wife of Bath, playing her as a Caribbean matriarch who has been married several times. To quote Tom Waits, she's been married so much she's got rice marks on her face. She focuses entirely on the little black dot and delivers a witty and warm monologue on female sexuality. She hardly engages with the setting, other than walking through it. The viewer she is picturing on the other side of the camera lens (they would know her story if she wasn't) must no doubt be a stranger to the character and yet is familiar enough to talk to candidly about sex.

You could watch the video twice and see two different performances, focusing once on the poet and on the market the next time. Sometimes the locals stop to look suspiciously at the camera, which is more an outsider than the woman delivering the bawdy monologue. Other times, the market carries on with its own particular life and bustle. One is reminded of the scene in Grizzly Man in which the director, Werner Herzog, muses on the drama of the framed shot before the speaker has entered it.

There are two performances taking place in this video. The first is from the dub poet Jean Binta Breeze, recited towards the tiny black hole of the camera lens, constructed from many separate takes. The second performance is from the market itself.

In her address towards the camera, Breeze adopts the persona of a Caribbean take on Chaucer's Wife of Bath. In the words of Tom Waits, she's been married so much she's got rice marks all over her face. The viewer that she pictures on the other side of the lens must be a relative stranger (otherwise they would surely know about her many marriages). At the same time, she is comfortable enough around this stranger to freely express her sexuality. The poem is funny and provocative.

Brixton Market, filmed in 2006, bustles about her. At one moment, she clasps her bosom and exclaims "What I do with my body is my own business!" – causing a woman to stop in her tracks and glare back in disbelief at what she has just witnessed. Kids, kept close to their mother's side, can't help but to look back and smile. One bare chested gentleman looks back with genuine puzzlement at what is going on.

Others see her as a momentary obstacle – a young man with a bag over his shoulder storms past, clipping the poet's elbow. Breeze shrugs it off without missing a beat. Most continue among their day to day affairs. The market of ten years ago had seen far more perverse and boisterous public outbursts than this. If anything it is not Breeze's performance that draws the odd glare, but the presence of the camera that she confides with.

In Live Poetry, An Integrated Approach (a book that heavily informs my attitudes and teaching), Julia Novak defines this kind of setting as a borrowed space. A borrowed space is simply a setting that normally has another function, distinct from poetry performances. It could be a football pitch, an oil rig, a cave or a call centre.

There is something about the Brixton Market of ten years ago that makes me think that, as a space, it could not be borrowed. It was never a surprise to see someone singing, dancing, ranting or telling everybody that they were going to hell. Energy never stayed pent up for very long. When it spilled over it was an energy shared with the space and the people within it.

The tension between the space itself and Breeze's performance is due to her not sharing her energy with the space. She is sharing it with us and all the other viewers distributed across space and time. From our vantage point, the market is the backdrop that frames Breeze's generous and brave performance. From the vantage point of the market, she is sharing her energy with the camera and the camera is a gateway to countless outsiders. Perhaps this disconnect is intensified because Breeze's dialect is one of the most recognisable of the many languages that were spoken at the market at the time.

Most performers would get the jitters performing in any kind of borrowed space but Breeze takes it a step further. We only get a sense of nerves at the end of the performance where she lets out a laugh that seems to exclaim "What the f*** did I just do?"

Today, Brixton market, at least one side of it, has become a haven for gentrifiers. As the old cash and carries and old school butchers and fishmongers were priced out by rising market rents; single origin coffee bars, organic delis, even champagne and cheese emporiums have coloured the area affluent and much, much whiter.

So goes the dialectic of displacement – rough becomes edgy > edgy becomes vibrant > vibrant becomes desirable. As a resident of the area since the early 00s and a frequent visitor before then, I never expected the area to change so quickly.

Maybe the time is ripe for someone to call Jean Binta Breeze's agent and get her back down to recite this poem amongst the hipsters, yummy mummies and creative freelancers? Would their mouths gape open? Would they remain as aloof as the normally are to the remaining locals? Would they call the Police? Or would they raise up their phone camera – a gaggle of little black holes peering blankly and blamelessly at each other?

This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts that work towards a criticism of the Spoken Word. I will be looking at all forms of Spoken Word — not just poetry readings and spoken word/poetry performances but stand up comedy, confessional monologues, academic lectures, speeches, wrestling promos and any other act of public speech that rings my bell. All posts will appear under the Toward a Criticism of the Spoken Word category. Click to see if new posts have been added and for any you may have missed.

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