National Theatre, Cottesloe. Directed by Angus Jackson. Opened at the Cottesloe December 16, 2004
A play about the situation and plight of black Africans in London (though the location is not specific and could be anywhere in English-speaking Britain, I suppose). Brother Kiyi, played with great intensity and conviction by Geoffrey Kissoon, has established a bookshop, its shelves piled high (almost out of sight, on the designer Bunny Christie’s towering set) with the writings of blacks — Marcus Garvey notable among them — and historians of the black diaspora; the problem is that no one buys them or even borrows them, and Kiyi is faced with the loss of his shop and the prospect that it will be taken over and made a commercial place for what blacks want to buy. Kiyi is, in these circumstances, the self-appointed representative of his race, ironically speaking in vain to a polity ignorant and uncaring of its own history.
He is seemingly without a family, but the truth is he is hiding a secret that will come out at the end even as he loses his shop and undergoes a great crisis of identity. Into his shop comes a lively young woman, Alice, of mixed-race parentage; a teacher of English and history, she is herself on a quest to determine her identity, in both racial and personal senses. All she knows is that her mother was white and her father black. But later it comes out that Kiyi is in fact her father — how she knows or discerns this is clarified through the somewhat dubious means of a photo album kept in a locked drawer by Kiyi, to which Alice eventually gains access and compares her only photo with one in the album. In a painful scene of acknowledgment at the end, Kiyi admits that he is the girl’s father and that the reason she has no mother is that Kiyi himself killed her — but, he explains, only unintentionally; what this means is not clarified.
What is clear, and powerfully realized in Kwame Armah’s script, is the shattering experience Kiyi undergoes, as the conflict between his attempt to help his race to an understanding of its self and identity and his long flight from confrontation of his own self and identity. The loss of his shop — we see all the books being packed up in boxes — and the persistent presence of Alice’s incessant questions (“You ask a lot of questions,” Kiyi complains; “I need a lot of answers,” she replies) bring Kiyi to the brink of a terrible crisis. We see him, in the last scene of the play, bring scissors to cut off his exceedingly long dreadlocks, which have served to proclaim what he now has to acknowledge is a false identity, a mask that has enabled him to hide, not only from others but from himself. At this moment he lets out a long, high-pitched, wailing cry of existential despair. The playwright could perhaps have given us a scene in which the father tearfully and happily acknowledges his daughter. But the moment in which Kiyi acknowledges his paternity has a different timbre to it. The play is not about the comforting reuniting of a long-lost father and daughter but about the plight of black separation — from spouse, from child, from family, from community, from, finally, meaningful life. Kwame Armah is not quite as good as he might be in structuring his play, but he has nonetheless composed a powerful, eloquent dramatization of the immense consequences, carried out over centuries, of slavery and its catastrophic effect on the lives and souls of black human beings.
At the end, we find ourselves longing for a more comforting dénouement. We want Kiyi to acknowledge his friendship for Norma, a public representative who supplies money, but in vain, for Kiyi to use to pay his quarterly rent (why that payment could not forestall the loss of the shop is not made clear). We see Alice become shamefaced because she has allowed herself to connect somehow to Kwesi, who occupies the upstairs flat over the shop and is engaged in vague commercial ventures. We see Carl, a stuttering, semi-literate person who helps Kiyi in the shop and who falls in love with Alice, lose out to Kwesi. (In the sequence just after Kwesi takes Alice upstairs, we see Carl arrive with a bouquet of flowers for her; he then secretly observes Alice go upstairs with Kwesi — and then he reveals his bouquet, obviously bought as a gift for Alice, a moment that elicits wide, vocal expressions of sympathy from the audience.) In other words, Kwame Armah trades in the usual materials of lower-class domestic comedy long familiar to this audience (including many blacks, some of them elegant and well dressed). His attempt to use them to fuel a powerful statement about black fragmentation and powerlessness, about a fulfilling quest for identity in a polyglot, modern, multi-racial global marketplace, is somehow only partially successful. The test is whether Kiyi’s personal loss can be made to stand symbolically for the losses suffered by an entire race. We see the connection, of course, but the materials of everyday realism that he invokes to this end seem to resist being co-opted for the playwright’s greater purposes. And there is the uncomfortable feeling one is left with, viewing this audience of well-dressed, self-assured blacks — better dressed than many of the whites in the audience — that they may understand the ideas in the play but that it may well not appear to them as meaningful as the dramatist would like. To put it bluntly, anyone who can afford to pay for a ticket to the theatre on a Tuesday night and get dressed up for the occasion may be too well sheltered and protected to become engaged by a play that presents the ravages of slavery on modern society and the consequent crisis of identity. These are people who know who they are and have the leisure to go out for a night at the theatre to see a play that tells them where they came from but perhaps does not add much to their sense of who they are now. They could be pardoned for thinking that the dramatist has been preaching to the choir — that his purpose is no less futile than that of Kiyi’s own. I wonder if they have this sense of who and where they are now, their vantage point on this play — if they sense the dramatic irony implicit in the situation of audience and play that inheres in this production? Have they read Garvey, or W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk? Are they likely to patronize Kiyi’s bookshop, full of many questions about themselves, their identities? Ten or twenty years ago a play like this might appear at the Tricycle or some other venue in the fringe, if at all. Now it is in the showplace venue of the National Theatre. Is that good? Does that represent progress? The answer seems not quite certain and troubles the mind.