Two years after being purged from the Labour Party over spurious anti-Semitism allegations and a successful run of performances in the UK, Jackie Walker is touring Europe with her one-woman show.
The Lynching of Jackie Walker, an autobiographical piece, was borne out of a political crisis in Britain’s Labour Party. Following the election of Jeremy Corbyn, an outspoken critic of Israel, as party leader, accusations of anti-Semitism within the party’s left have been on the rise.
Former vice-chair of Momentum, the left-wing group formed to support Corbyn, Walker – who is of Jamaican and Jewish descent – was an early target.
“They wanted a lynching, a political lynching,” she states in the play’s trailer. “So I thought I would get my own court of public opinion and you’re going to be that for me tonight.”
Walker was eventually cleared of charges of anti-Semitism only to be suspended again after she was secretly filmed challenging a controversial definition of anti-Semitism at a Labour Party training session. The head of the Board of Deputies of British Jews recently called for Walker’s expulsion from Labour.
The anti-racist activist draws a clear connection between a resurgence in the radical left and the accusations levied against her.
“You can see this in programs like Al Jazeera’s The Lobby. Suddenly the establishment began focusing on anti-Semitism – which does exist – to both beat and confine the left,” she tells me, referring to an undercover investigation exposing how pro-Israel groups influence British politics. “I think they’ve found it an effective tool.”
It is a tool that has since been used against many other Labour Party members, including Glyn Secker, secretary of Jewish Voice for Labour; Black anti-racist activist Marc Wadsworth and Israeli anti-Zionist Moshe Machover.
The Lynching is both allegorical in its treatment of political persecution and something of a clarion call for the masses. A non-linear narrative weaves together pluralities of voice, history and location, finally arriving at the present, an alarming mirror of the past.
Concerned for the most part in another period of social upheaval, Walker attempts to situate her particular “lynch” in a broader historical process. “This has all happened before, as my mother says [in the play]. This is a technique that the right use against the radical left whenever they need to button us down.”
Alarming mirror of the past
The play begins as Walker navigates the crowd towards an unadorned stage with a whiteboard, stool, table and coat stand. A photo of Walker’s mother, Dorothy Walker, is held in place on the board and on the coat stand hangs the brown trilby hat of Jack Cohen, Walker’s father.
Walker has a forceful yet disarming presence. She morphs from one character to another, employing a simple prop, turn or other sharp movement. The ghost of Dorothy speaks in a patois lilt and brings a fierce historical wit. She is both witness and public defender, traversing disparate geographical locations as she builds a case.
“Tonight you will hear about a witch-hunt, about fake news, alternative facts and an attempt to smash the biggest, most radical political movement we’ve ever seen,” she begins. It will become clear throughout the course of the performance that the play is as much about the vindication of a mother as it is her daughter.
The first act details the courtship of Dorothy – a Jamaican civil rights activist – and Jack – a Russian communist Jew – in 1940s Brooklyn. Their involvement, at first romantic, quickly matures. “It was music that brought us together, but it was in the politics where we found love,” states a nostalgic Jack.
Political activity – such as boarding buses as a mixed-race couple in the segregated South – attracts attention from the state and Dorothy is finally thrown out of the country, but not before a period of solitary confinement at a psychiatric hospital, where she is forced to give birth tied to a bed.
Such tragic stories are, however, punctuated by moments of laughter and Walker inhabits her mother with a true warmth, in a script littered with bitter anecdotes:
“Jamaica – a paradise. When white people get there for the first time, they say they discover it, they call it tabula rasa. That mean empty page. Perhaps they were blind because there were thousands of Indians living there,” she offers mockingly.
The Lynching is awash with historical reference. It traces the ghoulish picnics held at lynchings in the deep South and the founding of slave plantations in colonized Jamaica before crossing the Atlantic, where the Walker family is met with the “No dogs, no Irish no coloreds” signs of 1950s Britain.
Once in England, we encounter an 8-year-old Jackie who experiences a series of flashbacks, disrupting the narrative with short vignettes of troubling tales. Neo-Nazi attacks on the family home, racist slurs in the school playground and physical attacks color the stage, each scene interrupted by a lullaby.
Dorothy’s death marks another abrupt interruption in the play. An overwhelmed infant Jackie tells the story in short, simple sentences, shifting from past to present tense. “I went to sleep really quickly. But then, suddenly the light went on. And my mum can hardly breathe. I don’t remember how she got to the floor.”
Once at the hospital and following a post-mortem diagnosis, the child determines the real cause of death. “I remember what my mum told me and I think she died because she was poor and sick. Poor and sick and colored.”
From this emerges a present-day Walker, who begins detailing life in the years following her mother’s passing. It’s a sobering moment marked by its unvarnished, matter-of-fact delivery. Bleak irony is replaced by more somber observations: “I left care at 18, same way I came into Britain, with a suitcase and £25.”
An attack on change
After a brief sketch of her time in the Labour Party, grassroots activism and election to vice-chair of Momentum, we are brought to the present-day allegations.
A damning statement by the state prosecutor leads to the re-emergence of Dorothy Walker, who gives a detailed rebuttal of each charge. “Wake up!” she appeals, “we have seen this before. This is not an attack on Jackie Walker. This is an attack on change.”
Walker makes a compelling case in the mirroring of her and her mother’s struggle, and this bears fruit in the final act. “What I’m trying to do in the play is to get people to have a historical view of what is happening at the moment,” she explains.
“This new anti-Semitism, which equates criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, is one of the major tools they’re using to try to fracture and break us.”
The Lynching possesses a sirenic, almost shamanic quality, alerting us to the dangers of collective amnesia, offering the role of witness as its salve. The final scene of Dorothy and her daughter attest to this.
Eight-year-old Jackie stands center stage and describes a dream where she is visited by her mother. The two sit at the top of a hill and the child describes her Christmas meal among other things.
The mother begins to float slowly away toward the clouds as she says goodbye, leaving behind a tearful daughter, who resolves to remember.
And it is in this quiet love of memory that The Lynching triumphs.
Riri Hylton is a freelance journalist/editor working in both print and broadcast journalism. They are based between London and Berlin.