Sonny Nwachukwu: queering up a biblical story for Brownton Abbey

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Writer, director, choreographer and performer Sonny Nwachukwu shares his experience of creating Re(Union), a film exploring religion from a black, gay and disabled perspective. Sonny is one of four artists who will be sharing work as part of Brownton Abbey’s Talk Show hosted by Battersea Arts Centre and available online 18-20 June.

A black man wearing a red hat with a red veil which covers his face

Sonny Nwachukwu in Re(Union). Photograph: Myah Jeffers

‘A reunion, a re-joining of hands’ were the first words that came to me when I spoke to Brownton Abbey about creating a piece of digital film for their Talk Show. It took me back to my first visit to a Brownton Abbey Service and that’s exactly what it felt like, a reunion of some sort. I wanted to find a nice definition of the word ‘reunion’ to put here and from our good friend google one definition was ‘ the action of being brought together again as a unified whole’ this blew my mind and that’s how Re(union) was born.

What is Re(Union) about?

I would say that there are three layers to Re(union).

  • Finding yourself after religion-I think it’s fair to say though I do not believe in a religion I have the upmost respect for it, as I feel it’s part of my DNA and a lot of my work is influenced by the poetry of religious scriptures. Being black, gay and disabled in the church brought doubts. Even at a young age, it brought conversations that I needed to change elements of myself to fit in, to be included. This of course fragmented me for many years, so Re(union) looks like a gathering of these fragmented pieces and placing them in a church to witness them all trying to become one again.
  • Another layer that is explored is my stammer. The social model of disability really did save me in a peculiar way to take the shame off myself. It was liberating to understand that there are barriers in the way, rather than I am the barrier. As complex as stammering is, I understand that accessing my access needs are just as complex. Re(union) gives me the chance to say that’s okay and to find peace in knowing this. In Reuniting these parts of me that for a very long time I rejected (due to my own insecurities and historical discrimination) brought a type of peace whilst we were filming.
  • And finally and not least it was a chance to queer up a biblical story, don’t quote me but I don’t believe it’s been done before (I guess Lil Nas X but I had the idea first lol). Interestingly, Moses from the bible had a stammer so I thought lets queer up a bible story, with the separating of the Red Sea, the talking fire and the leading of myself to the promised land which to me represents joy.
A black man wearing traditional African dress with a red beaded hat. he also has gold make up on his face

Sonny Nwachukwu in Re(Union). Photograph: Myah Jeffers

All these points capture the magic that is Re(Union) an intersectional story, a re-joining of hands.

Taking Up Space

I’ve always wanted to dance in a church after coming out, I always wanted to be able to stand in a church and feel as whole as I can and I was very lucky that Brownton Abbey had access to a church that was just beautiful. The stained glasses, the dusty pews took me back and to play music in there that fed my soul, to move in a way that honoured my ancestors made me reawaken into something else. To take up space.

Working with Brownton Abbey

As an emerging artist, I’ve created my own company which looks at many things Brownton Abbey stands for and to be able to be in the process from beginning to the end was a great opportunity to be a part of. I don’t know if it’s because I haven’t danced in over a year or just good olde imposter syndrome but I did feel it. I felt ‘why did they choose me to be a part of this group,’ but once I stood in the church and looked at everyone working to their best ability to help create Re(Union) I had no choice but to fall in line and be the best I can. I think that’s what I learnt the most from working with Brownton Abbey, be the best you can at that moment, and everyone around will catch you if you miss a step. Cheesy, I know, but it was a very true feeling I felt when filming.

I had a great opportunity to work with many POCLGBT collaborators behind the screen which is rare and was an amazing experience to work with all these people. I had the fantastic opportunity to work closely with XANA and Myah Jeffers in the early stages of this piece, the many conversations and the understanding of what it was to grow up Christian and gay helped the project flow freely, as we ‘got it’ and understood what emotion that brought. It also helped to see the joy in it as well, the joy of now being able to interpret things in a different way and learn from certain lessons.

I had such a great time working on this piece of work, especially because I had decided to only stay behind the camera, writing or directing but to have this opportunity after the year of COVID-19 when we are now able to reunite with loved ones, our hobbies, the hot London Underground, really made this special and universal, as we enter our own reunions.

So, I do hope you join us for an exclusive screening of Brownton Abbey: Talk show, where you’ll get a chance to see all the amazing work that has been commissioned by Brownton Abbey. You can get your tickets here.

Sonny x