Exploring London’s forgotten black gay clubbing history

68

During the ten years it was open, the Paradise Garage was a magnet for New York City’s black gay community. Since its closure in 1987, the Garage has come to be regarded as the mother of modern clubbing: it was where house music icon Frankie Knuckles cut his teeth, where resident DJ Larry Levan would wow the crowd with his legendary sets, and where cult artists and musicians from Keith Haring to Arthur Russell would sometimes slip in and dance until the early hours. And for everyone on the dancefloor, real life could be forgotten for a moment and replaced by the soundsystem, a cloud of poppers, and waves of naked flesh. Sweaty, funky, and fierce, its fame has seen it carved into the stone slabs of dance music history.

But now, a new play at Depford’s Albany Theatre is telling a parallel story from the same period. It’s inspired by London’s black gay underground, and the clubs – along with the DJs – that conversely are at risk of being forgotten. Dedicated to “all the DJs who have helped our community find liberation on the dancefloor” theatre group Inky Cloak’s We Raise Our Hands In The Sanctuary is a powerful show, soundtracked by the era’s classic bangers, that explores what happens when two black gay friends decide to start their own clubnight in London’s East End. The play resonates particularly strongly today, an era where queer spaces are disappearing and disappearing fast.

Writers and producers Daniel Fulvio and Martin Moriarty spoke to us about the iconic music of that time, the UK’s forgotten clubs, and the lessons that can be learnt from the past.

Is there anywhere else with the potential to be so freeing – yet at the same time alienating – as a club? Especially a gay club?

Martin Moriarty: Yeah, we’re really interested in this. One of our starting points for the show was that kind of experience, particularly for LGBTQ+ people, of everyone coming together to find liberation in a community on a dancefloor. That’s an enduring experience that people have found in the past, the present, or will still be looking for in the future. All sorts of different genres of music, at different times in different places, have helped us find that moment of liberated relief. At the same time, we’ve been developing this project in this era of continuing erasure of queer faith. We’ve tried really hard to be unsentimental about LGBTQ+ clubs, though, because you can also find rejection, exclusion, intolerance, humiliation – all sorts of things.

“Coming together to find liberation in a community on a dancefloor… that’s an enduring experience that (LGBTQ+) people have found in the past, the present, or will still be looking for in the future” – Martin Moriarty

There are moments in the show – such as the ending – which feel like an elegy to, or warning about, the continual closure of queer spaces in London and around the UK.

Martin Moriarty: I think that’s a really good reading of that final act. It’s both of those things. It is an elegy about what happens, what is lost. The key loss that we were juggling to live with and fight against in the community at that period (the 1980s) was represented by HIV/AIDS and the disappearance of all sorts of incredible human beings. The loss now is much more about physical space. The way we scored the final act – with the music just throbbing through the whole piece, then the music just evaporating and there’s nothing – is about loss and what that the experience of losing space actually might mean. Why we need it, why we still need it, why we’ll always need it.

But don’t you think people who are young and queer today have evolved their own gay experience, which might be online or on apps like Snapchat?

Martin Moriarty: I think it’s a really interesting paradox about the times we live in now, because if I was a young gay man growing up now, in the suburban pit of woes I grew up in, there are a lot of amazing ways I could make connections to people through the online world. That would have been in many respects thrilling and a lifeline, a way of maybe helping me find my tribe a bit earlier than having to move to London (and) go out on the scene. But I do think that something is lost through that. There’s something about being in a real melting pot with people you might not necessarily have thought of chatting to. It’s something that is definitely lost with the online experience.

“If I was a young gay man growing up now, in the suburban pit of woes I grew up in, there are a lot of amazing ways I could make connections to people through the online world” – Martin Moriarty

Why do you specifically decide to write a show based around the black gay clubbing experience?

Daniel Fulvio: It’s quite organic how that happened. The first germ of the idea was around us reflecting on the enduring friendship between Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan, in New York. They both played such a defining role in the creation of the global dance culture that we all live with now. Yet I guess people who are interested in the music, just write about the music. They might mention that they were gay in passing, but this story is also about a really powerful connection between two black gay men. According to legend, they met at very early Harlem drag ball and they get their first gig at the Continental Bar in New York. Our starting point evolved from that to deciding not to write something that’s actually rooted in their biographies. That’s kind of too restricting – and also it’s in New York, and we wanted to actually write from this space here (London).

So we thought, ‘Let’s write something where the protagonists are a team, a friendship team of two black guys, which also explores how black gay culture is marginalised within our wider LGTBQ community.’ You know, if you look at the survey like the recent GMFA (Gay Men Fighting AIDS) one on racism on the gay scene, it is hideous. Think of those open declarations online where people state they just are not interested if you are ‘any of the following….’ Again, that’s a way in which stuff has changed. In the digital world we live in, we can end up being in a little echo chamber of people who are exactly like us. One of the magical things about being gay in earlier eras, is that they always had the potential to bring people together who would never have met. They didn’t always, obviously.

Martin Moriarty: An early draft of this project was actually set in New York. Someone asked us: ‘Why aren’t you setting it in London?’ Then we thought: ‘Yeah, why aren’t we setting it in London?’ That was another part of the process of why it happened. Then it just took us on this amazing journey of talking to people from the era, from the scene back then, and all these hidden histories.

Do you think the story of black gay clubbing in 1980s London has suffered because it doesn’t have the fame of DJs like Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan associated with it? It’s been allowed to disappear in the mists of time?

Martin Moriarty: Totally, totally, totally, totally, totally. It made us even more determined to tell this story really, and to tell it in an inventive, interesting and epic way.

So what do you hope people take away from the show?

Martin Moriarty: That they end up feeling like: ‘I really need to go out dancing.’

We Raise Our Hands In The Sanctuary runs at the Albany Theatre, Deptford until Saturday February 11