The Gift at the Theatre Royal Stratford East review ***

The Gift

Theatre Royal Stratford East, 8th February 2020

Another in the lengthening list of contemporary plays where the reach of ambition exceeds the grasp of execution. Janice Okoh has set her sights on “imperialism, cross-racial adoption, cultural appropriation … and tea” with her “outrageous” play set firstly, in Victorian Brighton in 1862, and then in a present-day village in Cheshire. It has some thought-provoking, and funny, dialogue and some arresting scenes, born of its formal invention (and doubling), but it doesn’t quite hang together and loses focus, and turns preachily didactic, after the first two acts.

In the first act Sarah Bonetta Davies played by newbie Shannon Hayes is a Yoruba princess, orphaned, enslaved, rescued and then “adopted”, as was her “fashion”, by Queen Victoria, and now about to return to her African “home”. She attempts to school her unrefined black maid Aggie (Donna Berlin) in the etiquette of tea drinking before being join by Yoruba husband James (Dave Fishley), peremptory “aunt” Mrs Schoen (Rebecca Charles), benevolent Reverend Venn (Richard Teverson) and social climber Harriet Walker (Joanna Brookes). Interesting because Sarah Bonetta Davies was a real person (with a fascinating legacy) and interesting because of the way Janice Okoh uses this classic drawing play set up to explore her themes.

Then a switch to the tasteful front room in Cheshire where new white neighbours, artisan baker Harriet (Rebecca Charles) and Ben (Richard Teverson), have come to visit black professional couple James (Dave Fishley) and our latter-day Sarah (Donna Berlin), armed with muffins. Tea, of every possible hue, is taken. Through a mix of misplaced good intentions and weakly concealed racism, the white couple’s woke-ish self-image unravels and they start digging and don’t stop, especially when it comes to the subject of James’s and Sarah’s adopted, white, daughter, Victoria. James and Sarah initially pass off the unconscious gaffes but, especially when Ben’s comments turn offensive, then push back, inducing the inevitable “well if that’s how you feel” wounded umbrage from Harriet and Ben. Ms Okoh absolutely nails this scene with laugh out loud satirical writing of the highest quality.

A powerful scene follows where modern Sarah, worn out from the casual bigotry, strips and walks off rear stage through a series of light box squares. Interval. And then the return for the tea party showdown between the oblivious Queen Victoria (Joanna Brookes) and the furious Sarah BD. Great concept but tension has defused and Sarah’s arguments become too sustained. And Aggie reappears as some sort of time-lord oracle. Intentions are exemplary, but the structure becomes all too visible and the drama climaxes with a thud.

Though not for want of creative nous. Dawn Walton, who founded Eclipse Theatre, the co-producer of The Gift alongside the Belgrade Coventry, handles the detail of each act with surety, with Simon Kenny’s set, Johanna Town’s lighting and Adrienne Quartly’s sound, all chipping in, but even she can’t quite bring together each strand of the narrative. And the cast, especially Donna Berlin, (last seen by the Tourist at the Arcola in Great Apes – please give that beacon of East London culture, as well as this one here, some cash), plainly relish Janice Okoh’s dialogue.

I would still be very keen to see more of Ms Okoh’s work, particularly if she were to challenge the audience with “just” ideas and dialogue and not form as well. Nonetheless The Gift counts as another in the growing list of plays that Nadia Fell has programmed at the TRSE that talk up to its diverse audiences as well as entertain. They are coming back soon(ish) I hope. With a panto. We’ll need it.

A Kind of People at the Royal Court Theatre review ****

A Kind of People

Royal Court Downstairs, 16th December 2019

Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti was a new playwriting name for me. No longer. A Kind of People takes a not uncommon subject, racism in contemporary Britain, and not uncommon set-ups, a mixed race marriage, friendships, a party, a workplace, and conjures up an insightful and nuanced drama, with (mostly) credible dialogue and (mostly) well-rounded characters. If this sounds like I am damming with faint prose I am not. Getting this type of play just right, without getting preachy or taking too unlikely a turn, is not easy so hats off to both writer, and director Michael Buffong from Tawala.

Given the impact that GKB’s previous plays have had my ignorance of her work extends well beyond remiss. Her first play Behsharam (Sensation) was a great success, Behzti (Dishonour), which included the rape of a young woman in a gurdwara, won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize in 2005, before being chased off the Birmingham Rep stage by British Sikh protestors. Her next Behud (Beyond Belief) drew on her experiences around Behzti, followed by Londonee, Fourteen, Khandan (Family), Elephant and Dishoom!. As far as I can work out all of this draw on her own life and Sikh heritage whilst A Kind of People expands beyond this.

Nicky (Claire-Louise Cordwell) and Gary (Richie Campbell), childhood sweethearts, now married with three kids, just about managing, are throwing a small party. Gary’s white best mate and work colleague, Mark (Thomas Coombes), is a permanent fixture, Mo (Asif Khan) and Anjum (Manjinder Virk), British Asian friends and neighbours, are a bit better off, Karen (Petra Letang), Gary’s sister and Nicky’s best mate, has just broken up with her partner. Gary’s boss at the electrical engineering company, Victoria (Amy Morgan), pitches up, overdoes it on the prosecco and retires, disgracefully, after a bout of overtly racist behaviour.

All is then forgiven? Not really. And then Gary goes for a promotion, which he doesn’t get despite being well qualified. He blames Victoria. Things unravel from there. See what I mean. No bombshells, disclosures, blasts from the past, or anything else to drive an audience double-take. GKB’s meticulous dialogue explores each character’s motivations and reactions without judgement leaving us to decide who is taking and causing offence and whether the consequences are justified. Maybe there are moments when dialogue to advance the plot, flesh out back stories and build the arguments emerges just a little too artificially, but hey, it’s a play not “real life”.

Fair to say that this production also benefits from two central performances that skilfully mine the ambivalence of the text. The only time I have seen Claire-Louise Cordwell on stage was in the dreadful A Tale of Two Cities at the Open Air Theatre for which she takes no blame. Like her, Richie Campbell is also a TV veteran and the experience of both in gritty screen drama and even soaps shines through. This is well beyond soap cliche however, though I note that GKB cut her teeth on Eastenders and has form with The Archers, but the trick of drawing attention to thorny socio-political tensions through heightened individual dilemmas, bears comparison. (Early on Victoria remarks that the party is “so nice, just like off the telly”). Multiple points of view, uncomfortable truths, flawed but empathetic personalities. Gary is casually sexist, Victoria is, at best, full on white gaze, Anjum explicitly classist when it comes to her son’s education, Mark is jealous and manipulative.

Anna Fleischle’s set switches briskly between the couple’s council flat and the workplace, and the park where the play, poignantly, concludes, in flashback. So that nothing gets in the way of the audience’s, palpable, reactions to the unfolding drama. I would hazard a guess that All Kinds of People is a play that has been allowed time to develop and that GKB has been generous in taking on the advice and suggestions of her various collaborators. Which will have helped make it such a tight, effective and vital story.

Fairview at the Young Vic review ***

Fairview

Young Vic Theatre, 11th December 2019

Fell like a bit of a fraud putting pen to paper on this. For, I confess, I did not completely understand Fairview. African-American playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for the play. The conceit is ingenious. A birthday dinner for the grandma in a well to do African American family is first dramatised straight, in pointed sit-com fashion, then through the eyes of four candid white “observers” through voice-over and then on stage in various, exaggerated, performative personas.

It is a dazzling formal experiment which skewers the racist assumptions which underpin white America’s loaded, appropriating view of black American culture. Representation trapped by definition in a racist framework. The “white gaze”. It made me think. And it made me uncomfortable. Guilty even. But I don’t know what to do with these feelings. BD tells me to change. To question everything about my privilege. And then? Give it up? Stay away? Engage? Who decides? Who defines? The infinite regress of identity examination. Meanwhile the rich c*nts, of which I am one, go on getting richer. And the world burns.

And, as I say, many of the references, the pointers, the lessons if you will, that the white characters discuss in Act 2 and then garishly visualise in Act 3 are outside of my cultural milieu. Leaving me lost. Tom Scutt’s designs, Nadia Latif’s intricate direction and the fearless performances of Naana Agyei-Ampadu, Donna Banya (especially at the finale), Nicola Hughes and Rhashan Stone, and then David Dawson, Julie Dray, Matthew Needham and Esther Smith, are simultaneously intoxicating and precise. The fourth wall is smashed. And then some. Much like my head after watching this. It needs to be seen.

“Master Harold” … and the boys at the National Theatre review *****

“Master Harold” … and the boys

National Theatre Lyttleton, 26th October 2019

I was surprised by this. Not by the content. Athol Fugard, like his compatriot in the plastic arts William Kentridge, has more than enough inspiration to fuel his art from the history of his nation. Master Harold, like the other plays of his I have seen, therefore deals with the legacy of apartheid. But, being a three hander, with precocious schoolboy Hally whiling away an afternoon at the teahouse owned by his parents in the company of waiter Sam and helper Willie, and most obviously autobiographical, it offers more dramatic dimensionality than the two handers which typify AF’s classic work.

It helps that this is, as far as I can work out, a near perfect production, directed by Roy Alexander Weise, about to take on the joint AD role with Bryony Shanahan at the Royal Exchange Manchester, and responsible for Nine Night and The Mountaintop, (and slated to deliver a revival of Roy Williams’s Sucker Punch at TRSE and an Antigone at the Lyric Hammersmith), on a satisfyingly realistic set courtesy of his regular collaborator Rajha Shakiry. With two actors, Lucien Msamati (Sam) and Hammed Animashaun (Willie) at the top of their games and one, Anson Boon (Hally), who looks like he is poised for great things. Young Anson, with TV series The Feed and Shadowplay, and films, Sulphur and White, The Winter Lake and Sam Mendes’s one take WWI drama, 1917, is about to come to a screen near you, and, on the basis of his performance as Master Harold here, I can see why.

Now I am assuming that a lad from Northampton, who didn’t go to drama school, hasn’t done much in the way of Anglo white middle class South African, specifically Port Elizabeth, mid C20 (1950 to be exact), accents before. With the help of company voice coach Simon Money, and dialect specialist Joel Trill, though he nails it. To be fair this is an exact impersonation of AF’s own voice, winding back seven decades so up an octave, but it is still very convincing. As are the corresponding accents of LM, Sam’s education and knowledge outstripping his position, and HA.

AF’s father was a disabled jazz pianist and his Mum ran a boarding house at tea shop in PE. As well as being a top bloke and brilliant story-teller ,(an essay in the programme tracks his career as an activist and creator of subversive theatre, alongside collaborators Winston Ntshona and John Kani, academic and film-maker), he is also plainly a clever bloke. As, therefore, is the fictional Hally.

On the afternoon of the play Hally’s Mum has gone to visit the alcoholic Dad in hospital and phone calls reveal the strain on the family, with Hally pleading with Mum not to let Dad be discharged. The older Sam (45) is plainly a surrogate father and foil to Hally’s intellectual curiosity with Willie as more of a playful contemporary. Sam and Willie have clearly been looking after Hally for much of his life. The mood is relaxed, with Hally’s patronising attitude, and Sam and Willie’s tolerance thereof, just a given. Willie has asked Sam to help him learn to dance (ballroom crossed cultural divides in SA and here it is a metaphor for life). The conversation between the “friends” flows across a range of subjects. Yet we never forget that Sam and Willie are employees and that the condescending Hally is the “boss”, and eventually, in a fit of pique, Hally loses control and the racial divide is starkly expressed. This pivotal moment, and what follows, even as you guess something is coming, is still very shocking and as powerful a symbol of the stain of apartheid as one could imagine.

The play was banned in South Africa so received its first performances in New York in 1982. Its exposure of the corrosive effect of apartheid, the deflecting subservience of the blacks, the oppressive entitlement of the whites, is all the more affecting because of the lyrical and intellectual nature of AF’s dialogue and the depth of the emotional bonds between the characters. Like all his plays it takes its time, which can weigh down on the drama, and, at first, the writing seems forced, but I think reflects the reality of the complex relationship. It may be that AF has exaggerated the flaws in his autobiographical self, but, as we learn of Hally’s disgust at what caring for his father involves, and his lack of friends his own age, of Willie’s “real” life outside the tea shop as he gets on with the tasks he is set, and we see Sam’s dignity in the face of the everyday injustice that has stunted his life, I think it rings true.

Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads at the Spiegeltent Chichester

Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads

Spigeltent, Chichester Festival Theatre, 17th October 2019

There are a few candidates for my favourite play of 2019. Lynn Nottage’s stunning Sweat at the Donmar Warehouse, or either of the revivals of the Miller classics at the Old and Young Vics respectively, All My Sons and Death of a Salesman. Still TBD but this revival of Roy Williams’s 2002 play about racism, nationalism, football and aggressive masculinity will run them close. So far I have only seen this and RW’s previous offering, The Firm, but I am most definitely a fan. He writes about stuff that matters, politics, race, institutions, friendship, identity and obvs, Marvin Gaye, with big gestures and authentic dialogue. As far as I can tell his work pulls no punches, literally in some cases, and he doesn’t hold back from examining uncomfortable truths about our society. The good news is that TRSE is set to revive Sucker Punch next year directed by Roy Alexander Weise and that Rafe Spall will star in the monologue RW has co-written with Clint Dyer at the NT, Death of England.

Spiegeltents are wood and canvas tents which originated in Belgium in the C19 for the purpose of travelling entertainment. Perfect for housing the replica of the King George pub, designed by Joanna Scotcher, in which SYHOFTL is set, on the afternoon of Saturday the 7th October 2000 for the England-Germany World Cup qualifier at Wembley (the one after which Keegan walked as manager). Or at least the tent would be if it wasn’t lashing down with rain outside. Of course this was one of those days where the deluge was followed and preceded by clear skies, (that’s climate change for you), but I am pleased to report that the tent, bar a bit of shaking, stood up to the storm. What it did mean is that for 5 minutes or so the cast had to bellow to make themselves heard and it added another dose of ferocity to what is already a play steeped in violence. Terrific atmosphere.

It opens with Jimmy (Martyn Ellis, more usually a musicals man), the father of landlady Gina (Sian Reese-Williams) pottering in the pub ahead of the match. Now this being South West London, (I want to call it as a non-gentrified of Fulham), everyone has a full on Eastenders type accent, quite something coming from as Welsh as it gets, Ms Reese-Williams, who excels here. They are joined by her lippy teenage son Glen (Billy Kennedy) and her ex Mark (Mark Springer) who recently left the army. When they leave Glen, desperate to be accepted on the “street”, is left with two of his new friends Duane (Harold Addo) and tough-guy Bad “T” (Dajay Brown) who bully Glen and try to steal drinks from the bar. Gina returns and chides them. One by one the rest of the pub team regulars turn up, in England kit regalia, to watch the match. Pub football team captain Lawrie (Richard Riddell) who is looking for a fight and nakedly racist, his conciliatory ex copper brother Lee (Alexander Cobb), the mendacious Alan (Michael Hodgson) who, it transpires, is a local councillor for far right political party Britain First, Becks (James Jack Ryan), Jess (Kirsty J Curtis), Phil (Rob Compton) and finally Barry (Makir Ahmed), Mark’s conflicted younger brother.

Against the backdrop of the game, banter turns to threat, debate to violence, fuelled by alcohol. The tenor of the dialogue reflects this. It is, at times, funny, as well as viscerally disturbing, and the cast, superbly marshalled by director Nicole Charles whose last outing was Emilia at the Globe, completely immerse themselves in their roles. This is vital theatre, not just because of the staging, but also because it dares to expose the reality of racism and misogyny in C21 Britain. I have rarely seen a trio of performances more affecting than those of Richard Riddell, whose twitching belligerence seems to hid some deeper resentment, Mark Springer whose spell as a squaddie leaves him aggrieved and determined to confront the racism of his former friends, and Michael Hodgson whose needling of Mark and whose warped arguments are especially unnerving. (He also stood out as first the Porter and then Duke Capulet in the last RSC season).

RW also packs in plenty of plot, which I can see some might feel veers towards the melodramatic; the arrival of the coppers after Glen’s phone is nicked, as well as Sharon (Jennifer Daley), Duane’s Mum, at the end of the first act, (and which memorably here, saw a police car actually arrive outside the tent), and even more so the tragic conclusion. But it certainly gets you on the edge of your seat.

You don’t need to be reminded that racism is still associated with football. And the kind of attitudes and behaviours that are depicted in SYHOFTL are also still prevalent. Relevance, character, language and spectacle make this production a classic. What’s more, for once, I was one of the older members in this matinee audience. I can see why the this might have frightened the pensioner horses of Chichester but the students, for I am pretty sure that’s who they were, were transfixed.

I understand the Spiegeltent went on to host a variety of one-nighters after the run of SYHOFTL. If you ask me there must surely be case for bringing this production up to the big smoke as has happened with so many CFT productions. I can see an ideal pitch on the South Bank next door to the National. In which case I implore you to grab a ticket. In an ideal world an enterprising producer would find a way to overcome the health and safety and blocking issues and stage this in a pub. Downstairs from a theatre upstairs would be a neat inversion. Imagine this in the Latchmere below the 503. What would be a real shame is if this superb realisation of this modern classic didn’t reach an extended audience.

Appropriate at the Donmar Warehouse review *****

Appropriate

Donmar Warehouse, 3rd October 2019

After deconstructing a Victorian melodrama in An Octoroon and satirising modern tragedy in Gloria, London now gets to see Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s 2013 take on the dysfunctional American family drama. Only this time the secret which lies at the heart of the Lafayette family is about as shocking as it gets. Move over O’Neill, Williams, Miller, Albee, Hansberry, Wilson, Shepherd and Letts.

Franz (Edward Hogg), Toni (Monica Dolan) and Bo (Steven Mackintosh) have come back to the family home in Arkansas following their Dad’s death, with the intention of selling house and contents. Franz (Francois) is a classic fuck-up, addled by past addiction, but now seeking redemption with new, very young, new-ager girlfriend River (Tafline Steen). He is still hiding something however. Bo (Beauregarde), egged on by Jewish wife Rachael (Jaimi Barbakoff), wants, and needs, to extract the cash asap and get out. They have two kids, Gen Z tween, Cassidy (Isabella Pappas)and hyper 8 year old Ainsley (Oliver Savell). Toni, the eldest, was left to look after their increasingly difficult and infirm father, is therefore the dictionary definition of long-suffering and is keen that everyone knows it. She is joined by slacker teen son Rhys Thurston (Charles Furness).

Not much happens beyond the inevitable arguments and raking over of the past. But this is not just a forum for the frustrations and grudges of the three siblings, though the fact that they seem incapable of restraint makes that forum often mordantly comic. The discovery of a book of photographs of black lynching victims, and worse, suggests that their father, who spent most of his life in the North East before retiring to the family pile, was no upright liberal but the worst sort of racist. Legacy and loss take on a far darker tone with each character’s. mostly, worst traits reflected through the prism of this pivotal disclosure.

As in BJ-J’s other plays, the plotting is perfect, the rhythm sublime and the dialogue riveting. What turns this into one of the best plays of this year though is Fly Davies’s breathtaking set, the junk filled interior of the dilapidated plantation house, which together with Anna Watson’s lighting and Donato Wharton’s, into a gothic place dripping with memory and history. More than that though is Ola Ince’s direction. Ms Ince worked as Assistant to Phyllida Lloyd in the Donmar all woman Shakespeare trilogy as well as Associate positions at the Finborough, the Lyric Hammersmith, Theatre Royal Stratford East and, now, the Royal Court, where she directed Poet in da Corner. On the strength of this I expect her to sustain a glittering career. Everything fell into place faultlessly to deliver a drama which thrilled and edified in equal measure.

Now it helps that all the cast brought their A games to the performance. And it helps even more if one of them is Monica Dolan. Even when she barely has anything to work with Ms Dolan ends up being the best of the best on stage and screen. When it is just her, as in her debut play monologue The B*easts, which should be a GCSE text already, or she has something to really sink her teeth into as here with Toni (Antoinette), she is, cliche alert, a force of acting nature. Bitter doesn’t even come close. And then, as the family history unfolds, increasingly vulnerable. I had to do the thing where I look away to a point above the stage to prevent and embarrassing blub near the end. Magnificent.

Appropriate is audacious, clever, funny, twisty, surprising, absorbing and insightful. By not hammering home, or resolving, the consequences of denying America’s racial past, in fact here that past is turned by the family into potential commodity, he makes us even more aware. The play is haunted by the ghosts of dramatists past. But it knows and relishes that. And what a genius title.

The Doctor at the Almeida Theatre review *****

The Doctor

Almeida Theatre, 13th September 2019

He’s only gone and done it again. Robert Icke, the departing Associate Director at the Almeida, has ended on a high. Like that is any great surprise. Once again he has taken a classic text, this time Arthur Schnitzler’s dissection of anti-Semitism in pre WWI Vienna, and updated it for our contemporary age. Though to be fair it is a pretty good story even without the deconstruction and reconstruction. Yet by expanding the critique, and the central dilemma which underpins it, beyond religion and cultural identity and into gender and race, through both his adaptation and the casting, Mr Icke opens up a whole Pandora’s box of unresolved questions.

There are times when the clever dick nature of the project can irritate but, as I have said before, in the context of his Wild Duck on this stage, he is so, well, clever, that he gets away with it. His self professed aim is to clear away the fusty patina of performance history and get back to the roots of these often disturbing and radical plays. Professor Bernhardi fits the bill perfectly. But as well as bringing the play alive for a modern audience, and making them think, so hard that sometimes it hurts, Mr Icke also rarely fails to entertain us, ensuring the plot is as transparent as the message and the characters.

Of course we are fortunate that one of his favourite collaborators Juliet Stevenson was up for the central role of Doctor Ruth Wolff, an authority in Alzheimer’s disease, who heads up the Elizabeth Institute. She is a secular Jew who doesn’t suffer fools gladly and is dedicated to her calling. She is however unable to prevent a 14 year old Catholic girl from dying who has been admitted to the hospital after a self-administered abortion. She refuses to allow a priest to see the girl just before she passes, a decision that splits her team and has repercussions, social media outrage, petitions and political debate, when it leaks to the outside world. The Institute’s funding is threatened and Dr Wolf is forced to choose between her principles and self sacrifice.

This plot sticks fairly closely to Schnitzler’s original but divisions within the Institute, and outside, open up along gender and racial lines, as well as between Catholic and Jew. This is made more striking as we see that the cast largely plays characters which do not “fit” our perception of their identity and are not identified by name in the programme. Even after you grasp this central conceit it can still surprise, notably when we discover the priest is black. We see how medical ethics are shaped by professional and public opinion, and economics, and how identity, and the language which defines and contains it, can be co-opted for personal and political gain.

Naomi Wirthner is outstanding as the deputy plotting to oust Ruth, accurately capturing male entitlement. Paul Higgins plays the passionate priest with an agenda and Ria Zmitrowicz is once again captivating as the young transgender friend that Ruth inadvertently betrays. Pamela Nomvete and Oliver Alvin-Wilson, as Ruth’s loyal colleagues are pitted against Daniel Rabin, Mariah Louca and, eventually, Kirsty Rider who all see warped principle and pragmatic advantage, in turning against her. All this takes place against the clinical, fluid set design of Hildegard Bechtler, never black or white but shades of grey, with lighting and sound from Natasha Chivers and Tom Gibbons to match. And a live drumming performance from Hannah Ledwidge which serves to discomfort and ratchet up the tension.

If all this sound too tricksy, or woke-y, well it isn’t. Juliet Stevenson brilliantly portrays Ruth as some-one who is right, but hard to like, obdurate and emotionally naive. Her final monologue is shattering, played in conjunction with Joy Richardson, her lost partner, “Charlie”. RI keeps pulling us into arguments that simultaneously assert the inviolability of identity and the strictures and contradictions it can impose. The dichotomy between “freedom to” and “freedom from” as my old history teacher taught me all those years ago. The scene where the sceptical Ruth is interrogated for a TV show “Take the Debate” is the most acute satire of identity politics. And all this is done with sacrificing any momentum in the story: quite the reverse, the near 3 hours just bombs along.

The religious schism which informs the original play just about survives the expansion (primarily through the “right to life” debate which the unseen girl’s abortion precipitates), and there will be some for whom all this subversion detracts from the plot but the Tourist, once again, was awed by Mr Icke’s theatrical genius. I am signed up for his next outing with ITA in Amsterdam based on The Doll’s House and I see his version of Chekhov’s Ivanov is currently pulling then in in Stuttgart. I hope we see him back in Blighty soon though too, ideally having another pop at the Greeks, or maybe some Marlowe or Webster.

No great surprise to learn that this is transferring to the Duke of York’s Theatre from April next year. If you didn’t catch it at the Almeida here’s your shot at redemption.

Two Trains Running at the Royal and Derngate review ***

Two Trains Running

Royal and Derngate Northampton, 12th September 2019

Another instalment in August Wilson’s Pittsburgh cycle though, four in, the Tourist still has some way to go. Two Trains Running premiered in 1990 and is set in the turbulent 1960s – remember each of the ten play series covers one of the decades of the C20 and all bar one (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) are set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh.

All the action in TTR, well words really, for August Wilson’s plays prize dialogue and character over plot, both their strength and their weakness, takes place in 1969 in the neighbourhood diner owned and run by Memphis Lee (Andrew French). The 1960’s saw the economic decline of the Hill District, once a byword for prosperity and cultural relevance in Black America, accelerate, prompting intervention from the Pittsburgh Urban Development Authority. Vast swathes of the neighbourhood were demolished to be replaced by a white elephant Civic Arena and failed public housing projects. Many residents were displaced and the redevelopment became an object lesson in how not to do “urban renewal“. Memphis’s business has seen better days but now he is holding out for the price he thinks it is worth from the City authorities, not just for the money but also to take a stand for the overlooked and disparaged community. He dreams of returning to his Southern roots from where he and so many others were compelled to escape in earlier, darker, decades. Frankie Bradshaw’s set captures this transition with the beautifully detailed diner sporting a hole in its roof above which is suspended a massive wrecking ball.

Memphis is assisted by cook and waitress Risa (Anita-Joy Uwajeh) who constantly has to push back against her boss’s criticism and the sexist comments and assumptions of the regulars. These include the assured West (Geoff Aymer), the local undertaker whose business is thriving, hustler Wolf (Ray Emmet Brown), who uses the diner’s phone to run a numbers racket, and the stoic Holloway, an unemployed painter and decorator, (Leon Herbert). Most poignant though is Hambone, (the excellent Derek Ezenagu), brought low by his obsession with getting fairly paid by the white butcher customer for work he did twenty years ago. The outside world relentlessly encroaches upon the lives of the company, first when the animated ex-con Sterling (Michael Salami) returns to the Hill looking for work and for Risa, and as the rallies, protesting racial injustice, increase in intensity.

Impossible to fault all the performances or the careful direction of Nancy Medina, who was similarly adept with Dael Orlandersmith’s Yellowman at the Young Vic and, I gather, Inua Ellams’s The Half God of Rainfall at the Kiln. Easy to see why she has won both the Peter Hall Directors Award and the Genesis Future Director Award. The lighting and sound design from other young talents Amy Mae and Ed Lewis was equally accomplished. Which means the somewhat discursive nature of events of stage is down to August Wilson alone. That is not to say that the lyrical dialogue, what and how the characters say, isn’t pitch perfect. Just that there is rather to much of it. Too many layers if you will. This is true of the other plays in the cycle I believe but here the contrast of individual reversals with societal transformation is just a little too carefully wrought.

As a production it matches the high standards previously set by English Touring Theatre. As a play maybe not quite as convincing as the others in the cycle I have seen. Still very keen to see further instalments however and given the resonance of the parts that AW wrote for black actors I expect I won’t be waiting too much longer for just such an opportunity.

Until the Flood at the Arcola Theatre *****

Until the Flood

Arcola Theatre, 10th September 2019

I am in awe of actors, and indeed other performers, who are prepared to step out on a stage alone to entertain, inspire and educate us. A one character monologue is tricky enough. To present multiple characters surely more so. To inhabit 8 different, very different, people with no more than a jacket and a chair. 8 fictional characters though all based on the testimonies of real people. To also pack a emotional punch, lay bare the fault-lines of race in modern America but never harangue or proselytise. Surely impossible.

Not when Dael Orlandersmith takes to the stage with her work Under the Flood. The Tourist first alighted on Ms Orlandersmith’s work through the revival of Yellowman at the Young Vic a couple of years ago which tells the story of two friends Eugene and Alma across three decades, dissecting race, gender and, especially, colourism, and was way better than anticipated. Until the Flood, where she is both writer and performer, also blew me away despite now raised expectations.

It was first performed in St Louis in 2016 and as a response to the shooting of Michael Brown and in the suburb of Ferguson and the protests that followed. 18 year old unarmed African American Michael Brown was shot by a 28 year old white police officer Darren Wilson in August 2014. The circumstances of the killing were contested with the account of Michael Brown’s friend Dorian Wilson, who was with him, significantly diverging from that of the police officer. The police response to the unrest which followed the killing was viewed by many as excessively heavy-handed. A grand jury decided not to indict Wilson and a US Department of Justice investigation concluded that he had shot Brown in self defence. Many in the community believed this to be a cover-up given inconsistencies in witness statements and forensic evidence and biases in the legal process.

Prior to this short run at the Arcola the play was a highlight at the Edinburgh Festival. Dramatisation of cause celebres is a staple of recent American theatre but DO goes a stage further by attempting to show the character types which inhabit the world where this kind of tragedy is possible, almost inevitable, and to show the behaviours, prejudices and reactions that underpin it. There is Paul, a young black man, consumed by fear of the police and violence, hanging on until he can escape to college. The unapologetic white homophobe racist, Dougray, who revels in his hate, describing how he would gun down a group of black teenagers. Rusty, the retired white police officer who excuses shootings as inevitable given the stresses of the job. Connie, the white liberal woman whose attempts at balance only serve to highlight the assumptions she makes. Louisa, the wise black senior woman who tells us of the overt racism of her childhood, including so-called “sundown” laws. The pumped up, frustrated black youth who only sees disrespect around him. A black, female, lesbian minister who speaks to a convincing tolerance. Reuben, the barber shop owner who refuses to conform to the stereotype that two students, one black, one white, who come to Ferguson to study the case, wish to impose on him.

All these characters become more than their race or situation in DO’s hands – education, class, employment, neighbourhood change, gender roles, all get a look in – but it is race, and maybe more importantly, shared white privilege, is what pulls the narratives together. Takeshi Kata’s set offers a shrine to Michael Brown’s memory backed by video designs from Nicholas Hussong introducing each character and offering, along with Justin Ellington’s sound, snatches of the events in Ferguson. I suspect Neel Keller didn’t have too much to do by way of directing DO who is a mesmeric stage presence. It is tough to listen to, and moving as you would expect, but DO still finds humour.

Faith Ringgold at the Serpentine Galleries review ****

Faith Ringgold

Serpentine Galleries, 22nd August 2019

Once again it has taken the Tourist way too long to gather his thoughts on something he has seen. Which means this snappy retrospective of the work of Africa- American artist has now finished. Sorry. It was Very Good. I guess that doesn’t help.

I first encountered Ms Ringgold’s work at the Soul of a Nation exhibition at Tate Modern in 2017. Thematic anthologies are always a dream for an art numpty like the Tourist, giving an opportunity to discover all manner of ideas and artists, but this exhibition was especially fertile. Norman Lewis, Romare Bearden, Charles White, (especially) David Hammons, Timothy Washington, Barkley Hendricks and Melvin Edwards. All blokes. Which made Betye Saar and especially Faith Ringgold stand out, because not only does their art tackle issues of race, African-American identity and history, it also powerfully explores gender inequality.

Given Ms Ringgold’s engagement with the civil rights and feminist movements in the US over her five decade career it is perhaps surprising to learn that this the first exhibition devoted solely to her work in Europe let alone the UK. Through paintings, posters, books, sculpture, performance and her fascinating quilts she makes acute political points whose relevance has certainly not declined with time. Through her teaching and through the National Black Feminist Organisation which she founded in 1973 with her artist daughter Michelle Wallace, Ms Ringgold has been as much activist and influencer, (with real purpose, not like today’s self-obsessed “model/icons”), as artist.

She was born (1930) in Harlem where she grew up immersed in jazz culture and the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance, majored in art education and started her career teaching. She began painting in the 1950s and 1960s influenced by African art, Impressionism and Cubism and inspired by writers such as James Baldwin and Amiri Baraka. She turned to art full time in 1973.

This survey opens with 7 paintings from her American People series from 1963 to 1967 which examines social inequality and racial tensions at the height of the Civil Rights movement from a woman’s perspective. These works formed the core of her inaugural exhibition at the Spectrum Gallery in 1967. The large scale US Postage Stamp Commemorating The Advent Of Black Power about sums it up. Oversizing a stamp, Pop Art style, depicting 100 sets of eyes and noses, in a grid, with 10 black faces across the diagonal, (symbolising the 10% of the population that was African American in 1967), the worlds BLACK POWER are spelled out across the other diagonal, but with WHITE POWER not so subtly encrypted horizontally. As with her quilts later on you are presented with an arresting overall image, here using flat, bright paint, which demands further detailed inspection, even after the message has made its mark. At the time FR said she did not have a clear idea of what Black Power represented but she did feel the need to ask the question about how women would fit into the struggle. And, if you ever wondered where the inspiration for the iconic Obama Hope poster campaign came from look no further.

In the 1970’s she led protests against the representation of women and Black artists in galleries, designed posters to support her politics and organised The People’s Flag Show in 1973 where she was arrested for “desecrating” the American flag. Her paintings darkened in tone, drawing from African art and, away from traditional oils. She began to explore the potential in fabric after being stirred by the C14 and C15 Tibetan tanka paintings that she saw in the Rijksmuseum on a visit to Europe in 1972.

Less convincingly to my eyes were the abstract works from the Windows of the World series made with her fashion designer mother Willi Posey. This diverse practice was represented in Room 2 but. based on the punters when I visited, one work in particular reels you in. The United States of Attica dates from 1971/72, prompted by the Attica NY prison riots where 43 people died, and depicts a map of the US in green, red and black, the colours of Marcus Garvey’s black nationalist flag, recording the details of genocides that have occurred in the US from the colonial era.

In the 1980s FR first turned to the story quilts for which she is best known and which form the heart of this exhibition. These incorporate images and text to present the inter-generational stories of African American women from slavery through to the present, often painful and poignant, but also powerful and uplifting. FR’s great-great grandmother Susie Shannon, born into slavery, was compelled to sew quilts for plantation owners.

I was particularly struck by the triptych of quilts extracted from the Slave Rape series which show naked women modelled on FR’s daughters fleeing through stylised undergrowth. The colours and lines reflect the rich textiles of Central Africa, the images are made more alarming by the absence of the pursuers. Then there is Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemina? from 1983 which reimagines the racist stereotype from interwar minstrel shows used in the pancake mix brand as a determined matriarch who runs her own restaurant chain. The embroidering is exquisite, the characters sparkle, the text demands to be read. Rare sight to see people. after the regulation snap on their phones then standing still to follow the story across four generations. The other highlight was the personal Change: Faith Ringgold’s Over 100 Pounds Weight Loss Performance Story Quilt from 1986.

Later on in the 1980s FR moved away from narrative quilts to something closer to her earlier oil paintings and, for me at least, some of the classic art of the Harlem Renaissance, most obviously in Jazz Stories . Though the powerful political messages remain. In fact maybe even more so. Even without the text these dense complex works, as in the earlier pieces, need time to fully take in. We Came to America from 1997, part of the American Collection, shows a dreadlocked Statue of Liberty with black baby in one hand and torch in the other, astride an Atlantic Ocean, filled with writhing black bodies. The ship in the background is based on JMW Turner’s The Slave Ship. FR created a fictional artist creator for the series who dreams of walking back across the sea to Africa arm in arm with her brothers and sisters.

The Tar Beach quilt from 1988 is more autobiographical recalling childhood summers spent on the hot roof of her apartment building in Harlem with parents, friends and siblings. This formed the basis for FR’s acclaimed books for children. Subway Graffiti from 1987 shows friends and neighbours crammed on a subways platform with names and tags filling the panels which surround them.

But just in case we get too comfortable this collection ends with something more trenchant in the form of 1997’s The Flag is Bleeding again from the American Collection. We see a black women bleeding from her heart protecting her two small children all against the backdrop of the Stars and Stripes. The title is the same as that used in the American People series which opened the exhibition though that picture shows a black man armed with a knife, a white woman, and a white armed man peering through the bleeding flag.

The exhibition, and this is no criticism, did not include any of FR’s mixed media masks and costumes which she created in 1973, notably the Witch Mask series and the Family of Woman Mask series. Or any of her life-sized soft sculptures, which, like the masks, take inspiration from African art. The masks and costumes, together with music and dance, formed the basis of FR’s performance in the 1970s and 1980s which often retold the stories in her quilts.

Even without these elements this exhibition gave a very clear overview of FR’s practice. This is art with a clear message on behalf of those marginalised by race or gender, aware of its origins and its history. Nothing ambiguous or simplistic here. It elevates materials and making over theory and process, anger over aesthetic, and invites the viewer to take time to reflect on its meaning.

Above all else FR is a story teller. I like stories. And, I’ll bet, you do to. It’s just a shame that some of these stories still have to be told.