By: Kwame Kwei-Armah
Directed by: Jeremy Herrin
Venue: Cottesloe Theatre
Date: Wednesday 6th February 2008
This was an interesting and stimulating experience. It’s the first play I’ve seen by Kwame Kwei-Armah, and I was impressed by how well he intertwined the personal and the social, how the characters weren’t just mouthpieces for the ideas they’re putting forward. On the other hand, while the performances were excellent, and the play informative, I didn’t feel I could relate to the characters as much as I’d hoped. I’ve had no difficulty with other “black” plays, e.g. Big White Fog, so I’m not sure how much of the distance I felt was down to me (very possible), and how much down to what Steve described as a lack of soul (also possible). Steve has seen other plays by this writer, and found the same deficiency in his other work. I certainly didn’t feel there was anything missing while I was watching the piece, although now that I have a little distance from it, I find there was nothing happening which I really cared about. And from their actions sometimes, it seemed the characters didn’t really care either.
The story is of an older man of West Indian parentage, returning from an enforced leave of absence, who has a breakdown right in front of us. As he runs a policy think tank on black affairs, this is bad news for the whole organisation – five men, two women, and no dog. Actually, given that the two women are this guy’s wife and his mistress, it’s clear the female point of view is going to be pretty limited, and so it proved. But that’s not a problem if the rest of the play can deliver, and most of the time it did.
On the personal level, this chap not only has his mistress, but also his son working for him, while another, illegitimate, son joins them as an intern during the play. Lots of scope for personal issues there. There’s also a gay black guy, and a laid back colourful character who delivers the post and does the opening and closing prayers for meetings, and a partner who is thinking of accepting a candidacy as an MP for the Tories. He’s really covered the ground, but it didn’t seem formulaic at the time, so apologies if my description makes it seem that way.
Don Warrington played the lead character, Kwaku, who is imploding before our eyes. His drinking is obvious, his delusional state less so, but it becomes clearer as the play progresses. His refusal to handle the grief he feels over his father’s death a couple of years ago, plus his guilt and other emotions, drive him crazy. He gradually takes on his father’s persona, eventually making some outrageous racist and anti-Semitic remarks in a TV interview which pretty much wipe out the good he’s done with the organisation over the years. It’s a good performance, and came across pretty powerfully in that small space. I did need a little time to adjust to his use of two different accents, but once I did I found it a useful way of showing what the character was going through, not knowing what path to follow.
The central conflict of ideas was whether black people who are descended from slaves are a distinct group with different needs and therefore should campaign separately, or whether there’s greater strength in all black people working together to further their joint aims. The divisions in the “black community” were very apparent here. Those from Africa who had settled here to find better education, jobs, etc, regarded themselves as different from (and better than) those who had come over from the West Indies. The statistics quoted made it clear that young men with an African origin were doing very well, while West Indian derived young men were at the bottom of the heap. The idea of Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome was raised and briefly discussed, but didn’t get a full treatment, as the play was covering a wider range than just one issue, albeit a big issue. (Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome is an idea put forward by Dr Joy De Gruy Leary, and the program notes contain a discussion between her and the author.) The whole conflict was personalised here, because Kwaku’s legitimate son has an African mother, and so is neither one thing nor the other. His father’s rejection of him as not being properly West Indian is deeply hurtful.
The set is two offices, with doors off to right and left up some stairs. In the foreground is the open-plan office, with Kwaku’s office above and behind. Obviously, when action was taking place there, the front office had to go quiet, and this led to a strange lull the day after the really bad TV interview, when the characters left in the office would have surely been doing more than sitting at their desks looking glum while the other characters were having their row in the upper office. However, there was no other way to stage it, and it didn’t distract me too much – just a passing thought.
I don’t feel I’ve been able to put down the real experience of this play so far. It was fine watching it, but now I just seem to be left with ideas, and nothing much in my gut. So I’ll leave it there, and hope I can get enough out of these descriptions to recall the feelings, such as they were.
© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me