Thursday, December 06, 2007

Am I not a man and brother?

What with being a perfumed ponce, this week I’ve seen two plays. By coincidence, both feature strong performances from their all-Black casts, and have Things To Say. Both, I’d argue, address less Black/white divisions as discord within the Black community. Conflicts arise in defining and retaining an identity in the face of those who've sold out themselves and their brothers.

I can already see some readers of this blog rolling their eyes at such earnest, issues-based drama. But as with the best writing, the issues are only one part of the stories.

Statement of Regret has a smart and funny script, all set in a flash PR agency that’s maybe past its peak. Their thing is campaigning for the Black community, and they claim plenty of credit for the new Minister for Race. Now they need a new initiative, and Kwaku has an idea. They’ll campaign that only those of West Indian descent should benefit from any financial compensation for slavery…

The sparring of Kwaku’s two sons – one legitimate, one not – is a good analogy by which to discuss the wrongs of history and how they affect the present, and what anyone can do to make amends. It also raises difficult questions about what we fight for and at what point the fighting can be over.

Writer Kwame Kwei-Armah (yes, him from Casualty) is good at putting lots of points of view at once, without us ever feeling which one he’s behind himself. For the former Ian Roberts, there’s also some fun poked at those who give themselves more African names. The play self-critiques and questions as much as it points fingers.

The response from the rest of the audience was just as enthralling as the play; people gasped at the claims and the names-calling, whooped and applauded the jokes. It helped underline the potency of the subjects being stirred. In fact, it’s astonishing how much ground is covered: violence towards women, homophobia, education… As well as the broader themes of fidelity between friends, between lovers, between families.

This packing-in of conflicts meant that at half-time we were caught up in the story without any idea where it might lead. I was also impressed how, even at the end, it won’t offer easy answers but leaves us hanging on a question.

It also scored points for a trilby of Droo people: Rassilon, Martha’s papa and Major Blake from new UNIT. With this kind of witty, twisty and engaging script, I wonder what a Kwame Doctor Who would be like... Time for a whole other demographic of readers to roll their eyes.

The Brothers Size is a smaller play, with just three actors and no props or scenery beyond a chalk circle and red sprinkles. Oshoosi is recently out of prison, haunted by his experiences there. And while his brother Ogun tries to get him a job and to straighten him out, Oshoosi’s old cell-mate Elegba has other ideas about how they enjoy their freedom...

Again, it’s lively, funny and surprising, with songs and jokes suddenly cutting to sustained and moving pathos. There's deft leaping between scenes, and the way the actors speak the stage directions also works well to give the thing pace and energy. That it’s all held so compelling together by just the three actors is quite a feat of conjuring. D. called it a real “actors’ play” because it all hangs on the performance.

Heh. I’d also say its strength is in how it strips everything down to the words of Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s deceptively simple-seeming script. But I am a wee bit biased on that score. Both plays are recommended.

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