A Toast To The People is a brand new series of events that sees the Edinburgh International Festival partnering with the Edinburgh International Book Festival to explore the world we find ourselves in. Ten spoken word artists have been commissioned to develop a brand new work, exploring the theme of re-emergence, taking Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson’s song saluting heroes of the past as its theme. They’ll be performed in pairs over five nights at the beautiful covered stage in the University’s of Edinburgh Old College Quad.
Welcoming us to the first night of the series, local poet Nadine Aisha Jassat plays host and welcomes Jay Bernard and Debris Stevenson to the stage in turn. Bernard is a writer whose debut collection Surge won the 2017 Ted Hughes Award. In 2020, they were named Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year. For tonight’s show, they read a poem, perform a song, and then share the commissioned ‘Toast’ – a musing on identity, masculinity, and lampposts. A self-effacing performer, Bernard’s words are evocative, pungent, electric, sometimes witty but always heavy with the things unsaid.
Stevenson is a dyslexic academic and a Grime-poet. Her Grime musical, Poet in da Corner, received critical acclaim and toured nationally before the pandemic interrupted. She’s another understated performer, chatting away to the audience as if we were all sitting round having a cup of tea. Yet she’s just as invested as Bernard in establishing her place – her space – in the world.
Along with her poems – portraying a perky poignant reflection on her neurodiversity and a devastating discussion with her mum – we’re given a snapshot of Stevenson’s world. She tussles with the same feelings of not quite fitting in that Bernard expresses in their work: a serendipitous synergy that Jassat explores in more detail in the brief discussion following the performances. Stevenson’s Toast circles around her interest in equality. It’s funny, sharp, acerbic, and delivered with aplomb.
The subsequent discussion is as interesting as the performances. Bernard and Stevenson explore art, identity, purpose, and playful creativity amidst a pandemic. You get a sense from both that they can’t quite believe they’ve ended up here. Both aren’t quite sure that they belong; yet, following an hour and fifteen minutes with them, we’re incredibly glad that they are both here and using their words to make the world a better place.