at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester
26th May, 2018
“Why can’t she cook?”
These two plays are by debbie tucker green in lower case, as she insists on styling herself. It’s a brave move for the Minerva theatre to present them to middle class, predominantly white theatre goers.
Even before the play has begun, the choir envelops us sings. We witness even when we aren’t watching. The choir focuses our attention with a lament to the dead. The roll call of names speaks of the shared experience of communal grief; the outward manifestation of loss as well as the celebration of a life. “Another leaves us, another has gone”
Once the stage is set, the lyrical and haunting dialogue is delivered sparely and recycled, rhythmically, sometimes with a different emphasis. The repeated words become imbued with new meaning and the pauses in-between speak their own language. From the start, smell of the communal cooking of a meal in a South African kitchen is both unifying and dividing. We enjoy the flirtatious dance of a granddaughter and her suitor. The memories it evokes as her parents and grandparents recall their own courtship. Eventually only the grandparents are left, with the choir singing softly. Death has taken the rest. “I miss them”, says the grandfather. Each time, a member of the family leaves the stage – an imprint or an echo stays behind. The leaving is never explained, never addressed, and never mourned. Tucker Green is asking why we won’t just talk about it. What “it” is becomes inferred as we speculate.
Laurietta Essien is the final family member to leave, and when she does, we notice Okon Jones and Cleo Sylvestre have collected all the dying and disappearances that has come before, and let the final scene be a eulogy.
Clever as the play is, the inferred devastation of Aids in Africa depends almost entirely on the singing of a South African choir to make it moving.
In the interval, the choir sings in the foyer. The circular stairs and balcony echo the rounded thrust stage, and everyone looks down on the choir below. The choir leader catches my eye with knowing acknowledgement that I am the sole black individual in the audience, and seemingly checks to see if he saw correctly and I smile back to confirm.
“Never trouble trouble until trouble troubles you”
“Random” takes the form of a fifty minute monologue or, more properly as I learnt from the programme, a monopolylogue, where one actor tells a story by slipping in and out of the voices of multiple characters. Nadine Marshall plays all four members of a family – Mum, Dad, Sister, Brother. A young south London woman, Petra Letang takes us through her day, starting with the family morning punctuated by alarm clocks, sibling bickering and burnt porridge. Mother cooks breakfast, disapproves of the girl’s choice of clothes, father keeps order “the kind of Dad where an eyebrow can make you nervous”, and brother’s bedroom is not to be entered without a gas mask.
Unexpectedly, these familiar rituals are interrupted by news of the brother’s random murder.
Though this play was written several years ago, it resonates now with a reminder that knife deaths are not causing the collective outrage they should because the majority of victims are from black communities.
Sadly, “Random” lacked the depth of emotion to engage me with the shocking murder or indeed to empathise with the imagined characters.
Nevertheless, Tinuke Craig does well in directing both productions with deceptive simplicity.
John Steinbeck wrote in Once There Was a War: “The theatre is the only institution in the world which has been dying for 4,000 years and has never succumbed. It requires tough and devoted people to keep it alive.” Enter the theatres who wish to challenge audiences with diversity. I only hope that in the drive to achieve this, the material offered is not substandard because of the lack of familiarity with the Afro-dialects presented. These two productions weren’t great theatre but nevertheless, part of a step forward.