As a large Black man, Joseph Toonga is often conscious about how he’s being perceived by those around him. The East London–based choreographer feels that if he gets passionate about something, he has to be careful because he’s a very expressive person.
“Okay, watch your facials. Watch your actions. Because some people can perceive it [to be] very aggressive,” Toonga tells the Straight over Zoom. “I think that it’s something that stops me getting certain things I want to get…professionally, personally.”
This constant self-censorship can be draining, he admits. As the artistic director of Just Us Dance Theatre, he has channelled those feelings into a three-part dance project exploring how Black people experience and respond to day-to-day scrutiny, indignities, harassment from authorities, and even racist violence.
The first installment, Born to Manifest, began touring in the U.K. in 2019 and will have its North American premiere at this year’s PuSh International Performing Arts Festival in Vancouver. It vividly demonstrates through a form of street dance known as krump and other moves how two male friends (played by Toonga and a former student, Cache Thake) cope with the pain that comes with chronic oppression. Their movements and facial gestures are raw, highly expressive, and often very powerful, though they’re softened at times through expressions of vulnerability and camaraderie. The original score is by hip-hop artist Mikey J.
This is Toonga uncensored, writ large on the stage—a glimpse into what makes him human.
“I think it’s not about education,” Toonga insists. “It’s more about having an insight. Here’s an insight into a small part of my journey and the people who reflect me or look like me. It’s not the whole story. It’s an aspect.”
He would love to bring the next two installments to next year’s PuSh festival. The second, Born to Protest, has a cast of four males and one female and began touring last year. The third, he says, will feature an all-female cast.
When selecting dancers, he doesn’t solely focus on physical prowess. “Sometimes it’s movement,” Toonga says. “Sometimes it’s actually personality. If the personality is right and I feel that they can move a little bit, I can work with that.”
In creating Born to Manifest, he conducted interviews, distributed questionnaires, and conducted focus groups to hear the experiences of other Black people growing up in London. He reveals that the title came from one of the people in a focus group. He found it appealing because there are so many layers to it.
“When I look at it personally, it’s like I’m born to manifest being a man, being a Black man, being a father,” he says. “And, hopefully, that’s what people see. And when they hear about Born to Manifest, they recall what they are trying to manifest.”
Toonga came to London as a young child from Cameroon, but he says that he was formed in the U.K. when it was a very racist country. As a refugee, he and his mother and cousin lived in a motel on the farthest margins of society. His ingrained inner awareness of how others might perceive his expressions is a product of growing up Black in London’s poorest borough.
“I know if I dislike something, I cannot show you that I dislike it because you might translate it as being angry,” Toonga notes. “It was always a constant, like, kind of suppressing some of my emotions—how I felt about a lot of things—because I’m not allowed to feel them.”
Then there was the police violence directed against the Black community. He told the Guardian in 2019 that the police once visited him because a neighbour heard some noises from his apartment and thought that he had kidnapped two women. He had to show the cops his ballet shoes and leotard to convince them that he was a dancer.
Yet at the same time, Toonga resists being pigeonholed into one aspect of his identity. He was once a child refugee. His mother faced discrimination and even violence due to her Cameroonian accent, which sets him apart from Black males who were born to British parents. These experiences helped shape him, but they don’t define him.
He’s also a highly successful dancer and rising choreographer. And when people think that his art is a reflection of an activist mindset, he replies, “Nah, I’m just trying to express part of my journey.”
The director of programming at the PuSh festival, Gabrielle Martin, first saw Born to Manifest at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2019. In a phone interview with the Straight last month, Martin said that it’s unlike any other show that she’s ever seen.
“As a Black person watching it, this work addresses the violence of racial oppression and through it, the rage that that generates,” Martin said. “I thought it was portrayed in a really visceral way.”
She was also taken by the vulnerability portrayed by the two Black men on-stage and how they are able to cope with oppression through friendship and tenderness. Martin also acknowledged that as a women, she endures racism in different ways than Black men might experience, which is another reason why she found Born to Manifest to be such an empowering show.
“I think one of the things about being a Black person is that you just automatically empathize with all the fears of racial violence,” Martin said.
Toonga hopes that people who see the show will leave thinking about the experiences of others. If there is a Black male or Black female in their lives who might not be as open or as expressive as them—or if they witness what they believe is anger—Toonga hopes that they dig deep and invest the time to try to appreciate what’s really going on.
“It’s going to take more than just, ‘Hello, how are you doing?’ to understand that person,” Toonga says.
He acknowledges that one of the biggest risks in choreographing Born to Manifest was creating a show that’s “in your face but not attacking you just because, in the piece, you’re the other”.
“This piece needs to be in your face,” Toonga adds. “Not in your face in terms of making you feel guilty, just in your face in terms of my experience.”