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Excavating The Reno: an interview with Linda Brogan

Ellie Tivey talked to Linda Brogan about her 18 month excavation project of The Reno, the funk and soul club that once was host to such legends as Bob Marley and Muhammad Ali

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“Opposite the big ASDA on Princess Road” doesn’t exactly sound like the sort of place where some key historical discovery could be unfolding. But take a walk down there in the next week or so, and you will discover The Reno.

Once boasting visitors such as Bob Marley and Muhammad Ali, The Reno was the hub of Manchester’s mixed-race culture from 1962 to its demolition in 1986. Linda Brogan, award winning playwright and once regular of The Reno, has just finished her 18-month mission to excavate the funk and soul club, giving it one last hurrah before the land is re-purposed.

Being a bona fide history nerd, how was I supposed to resist? Last week I found myself on the excavation site, speaking to Linda herself about the project. What I first wanted to know was what inspired this excavation, and why now? As Linda said: “It’s about my colour. I’m not black, I’m not white, so where is my place?”

She references one incident in particular with a play of hers called Speechless. Speechless was based upon a true story of two black girls who set fire to their school during the 1980s. Linda handed this play to a director, a white, middle-class woman. When Linda went to see her play, she found that the director “always had the two girls fighting.” There were two other white characters in the play and, to Linda’s eyes, the director was always “asking them what they think, then telling the two black girls what to think.”

Photo: Karen Rangeley, Excavation, Reno Website

Photo: Karen Rangeley, Excavation, Reno Website

Karen Rangeley

Karen Rangeley

Upset to see that her writing was being portrayed in such a manner, Linda emailed the director looking for a discussion about adjusting the direction. In her words, the director “flipped out.” She was told she would only be permitted 20 minutes to speak to the director.

Linda replied by pointing out the irony of the situation regarding the fact the play was called ‘Speechless’. The director responded by saying that if she turned up to any of the future rehearsals, the police would be called on her. A threat that Brogan described as “classically racist. If I was blonde, white, middle class, that last threat wouldn’t have happened.” Linda “imploded” as she realised her play was now within the director’s world, a world in which she had no power.

This all led Linda to wonder where her place was. A few months later, she was reading a book named I Was Born a Slave; real life accounts of the experiences of slaves. One, which stood out to her, was about a slave who stole a horse to escape and was apologising for his crime to a pastor in order to get room and board.

“If a white guy did that” she says “he’d be a hero.” She realised that this man had to alter his story to suit the desires of the pastor and she thought, “this has what has been happening to me, how do I get my voice back?” And this is where The Reno comes in. Brogan realised in bed that night that if that slave had been telling his story at The Reno, “he’d have told that story like a hero. The Reno is where my voice is too.”

By the next morning, Linda had spoken to Manchester Museum, the cultural officer at Manchester City Council, the Whitworth, and before long, she had plenty of support for her excavation project of The Reno. This all culminates in one of the Whitworth Gallery’s late night exhibitions on 23rd November from 6-9pm.

“It’s one thing us digging up our Reno and it just being trapped here in Moss Side”, she said, “what we want to do is colonise the Whitworth too, that’s our history.” She spoke of “changing it from those clean white walls where everyone is quiet and reverent to just f***ing mayhem.” Snippets of people’s memoirs of The Reno will be projected over the top of Whitworth’s existing art. A DJ will be playing the funk and soul music so characteristic of what The Reno contributed to Manchester’s culture. There will be a display of all the artefacts found during the excavation process. It looks to be an incredible evening, so be sure to check it out.

Visit The Reno’s website for all the memoirs that helped gather money and interest in the project.