Ruffneck – A New Slanguages Animation

Tennexa Freeman

Birmingham-based playwright and filmmaker Tennexa Freeman talks about her new project RuffNeck, which was commissioned by Slanguages and directed by Kieron Burke – both are artistic members of The Creative Universe company. RuffNeck was intended to be a play for theatre audiences and was due to be staged in spring 2020. With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown, Tennexa and her team decided to develop RuffNeck as an online animation, produced by animator Josh Leach. In this #slanguages blog post, she also discusses some of the challenges and opportunities arising from this change in media. 

cover art
Image courtesy of Tennexa Freeman.

Please describe your artistic background - who you are, what genres of art you work with, and what you try to achieve with your artistic outputs?

I am a Black and Minority Ethnic/BAME Female Playwright with seventeen years of experience, largely as a self-taught artist. My 2019 play BAE was a competition winner in that year’s China Plate First Bite Festival. This success has opened the door to a range of opportunities to develop my practice as a theatre maker and mainstream practitioner. I am currently on a placement at the Young Vic, facilitated by Kwame Kwei-Armah via the theatre’s Snapshot Programme.

I have a strong track record of performances, most recently The TrapQueenz Experience. I was the Writer/Producer in residence at the intercultural arts centre THE DRUM in Aston in Birmingham, in 2015-16. My site-specific work Gaza City was staged at a disused warehouse space in Digbeth with high ticket sales. Other productions include BABYMOTHERS, BASHMENT SALON (2012) and BASHMENT HOUSEWIVES. All were sell-out performances, due to strong grassroots community engagement.

I developed the comedy drama short film, LOCK BOYS with support from Birmingham-based FLATPACK FILM and CREATIVE ENGLAND. This resulted in me winning Best Break Through Writer of the Year 2018 at the Under-Rated Awards show. In 2018 I was appointed a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts.​

What is this project RuffNeck about and what languages have been used in it?

"Ruff neck" is slang expression for a thug or streetwise strong individual that dwells in an urban low-income community. RuffNeck was originally intended to be a community Play, with good production values, delivered through immersive theatrical performance written by myself and co-written and directed by Kieron Burke. RuffNeck is a rib tickling, futuristic play depicting life in Birmingham set in 2030. It explores language through the relationship of a dual heritage young boy and his Caucasian White British grandmother and his African Caribbean Grandmother. The choice of the name of the play reflects a social survey of urban generations to come who will be eager to learn more about their Black culture and Black history in schools. I feel that the “tourist generations” will be attracted to their history and the “purist” generation, such as academics and artists, will carry the mentality of sacred knowledge for future “tourist generations” to understand. Creativity will help them to cross paths and interact with their stories and experiences.

Three people standing in conversation
Image courtesy of Tennexa Freeman.

Why are different languages important to you in your work and in this project, especially in terms of story-telling? 

This play will convey a message through language highlighting themes such as cultures, identity, sexuality, stereotypes and religion. A broad range of lexis will be used to establish the themes and stimulate conversations with the local public and generate wider community discussions. Language will be focused on context and situation, as also language and society – in terms of the format and style of the play. The play will demonstrate the important function of language within the composition of local, community social life, and the existence of language within sub-safari communities as well as the impact it has on creating sub-cultures over generations. The dialogue within the piece will consist of Patios and British urban slang. Patois is often referred to as the voice of the island spoken in rhythmic sing-song from the African Caribbean native tongue. Patois emerged as the expression of a unique and proud people, from the languages of those who came to the island. We now have a colourful lingo of transitional phrases that have creatively intermingled into British Contemporary society from families migrating from the Caribbean to the UK.

Your work has a strong gender dimension, particularly around men and women's stories – why is that?

My practice attempts to creatively make accessible the past and present, thereby encouraging audiences not to categorise themselves as any one single thing, but to question related issues across topics such as diversity, inclusion, pop culture, and thereby to hopefully develop open mindedness. The acknowledgement of highlighting conversations that take place within underrepresented communities is often echoed in the main storyline of my pieces to create positive messages around gender, change the narrative and increase the positive portrayals of BAME men and women’s stories. I try, therefore, to challenge stereotypes and present interesting gender experiences of family life.

You have worked with animation to bring your project to life, why is that?

In terms of artistically making the project happen, animation was the closest thing to micro-managing the changes due to the Covid-19 pandemic without losing artistic quality. We were still able to work with the original cast members, minimise the script and make/present an exciting community exhibition.

What about the role of Birmingham as a city and its diversity in terms of creativity and multilingualism for your work? How does that feature in your work?

Birmingham is coined as the second city and is known as the UK’s most diverse city. RuffNeck has been inspired by its multiculturalism, openness to identity, and the evolution of urban languages as inspired by the Caribbean roots embedded in local communities. The power of urban language blended into contemporary British 21st century culture shows the parallels between local communities, the influences of pre-internet communication via text messages to rap music culture.

What was it like collaborating with Rajinder Dudrah on Slanguages?

Rajinder came up with the idea of creating something that would stimulate direct conversations within the community and I matched that with my background in theatre to create a project for audiences I knew that I could cater for and would largely benefit from the ethos of Slanaguages.  Rajinder provided wider access to academic networks via Slanguages which has enabled me to forge future collaborations/ partnerships and the exposure allowed me to learn from others’ research and findings.  I was able to communicate the vision and the overall piece, and Rajinder provided positive input to help shape the project. Rajinder was extremely supportive of changes we made in terms of the output due to Covid-19 pandemic. We continue to have ongoing communication to ensure the best results and outcome for the project. This is the first animation project that I have done and we are both excited to hear the feedback from audiences, once it goes live.

What have you learned or developed on this project in terms of its impact on you as an artist – for example, how did this project impact the development of your work, your thinking, your idea of languages and creativity? Has it helped in developing your professional practice in any way for the future?

This experience has been interesting, I have extended my creative pallet and developed my creative practice; writing and producing my first animation project. The cast and I enjoyed the rehearsal process of learning the history of Jamaican patois dialect and we learnt how languages summarised a collective of emotions and how the importance of creative expression was to the human operation. Ultimately it is vital to share stories using a range of languages and dialects that are useful to representing the diverse human experience.

Has the Covid-19 situation impacted on the sharing of this work in any way?

Yes, we plan to exhibit and distribute project through an animation series.

How do you hope to develop this Slanguages project, perhaps in partnership with others for the future?

We hope to create a large scale theatre performance in collaboration with film makers.