Posts Tagged ‘Cyril Nri’

This is a 1955 work by African American playwright Alice Childress, written and first produced at the beginning of the civil rights movement (Rosa Parks challenged segregation the same year) which was staged off-Broadway but never got its planned Broadway run because of the playwright’s refusal to water down its satire on racism in the American theatre. Until 2021, that is, when it finally made it to the ironically named ‘Great White Way’ (actually named after the white lights on billboards and marquees).

The whole play is a rehearsal for a ‘coloured show’, where black actors play stereotypes like servants and ‘mammies’. It sends them up with exaggerated acting and mannerisms. Leading character Wiletta has a song and dance background but is desperate to become a proper actor, something reserved for white people at the time. Though relationships develop and individual character stories emerge, it’s essentially a one issue play. One reviewer of this production suggested each of the three acts are set in historically different periods, moving forward in time, but I have to confess I didn’t see that.

Though it’s important in highlighting unacceptable practices, I felt it was somewhat laboured, often lacked pace and despite the exceptional performances, 2.5 hours felt like a long time to make its point, perhaps less effectively because of the length. I’m not sure it has stood the test of time. Designer Rajha Shakiry has created a very realistic period backstage environment. Tanya Moodie leads an excellent cast that includes the great Cyril Nri, on fine form, a superb performance from Rory Keenan as the director of the play-within-a-play, a delightful cameo from Gary Lilburn as Henry the stage doorman and an outstanding professional debut from Daniel Adeosun as John Nevins, a newbie actor from the same town as Wiletta.

Though the black lives matter movement has made us realise this issue still exists, I’m not sure this play brings them to the fore in a way that would add to the debate and promote reform. I felt it was an interesting period piece rather than a contribution to the current discussion.

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This is a modern staging that works well, and somehow the present day African setting serves the machinations of the story and the verse sounds more naturalistic.

The set is a crumbling set of stone steps with a giant statue with its back to us behind them. Though these are used occasionally, the action is mostly stage front, bringing an intensity as events unfold. It is a play which takes time to get into its stride, as it does here, and in this production you also have to attune to the heavily accented dialects with which Shakespeare’s verse is spoken. When it gets going, though, boy is it rolling.

Greg Doran has assembled a brilliant all-black cast led by Jeffery Kissoon as Julius, capturing all the complexity of the character, and Ray Feardon as a hugely charismatic Anthony. There’s a brilliant passionately manic Brutus from Paterson Joseph and Cyril Nri gives us a Cassius who’s completely wwrapped up in all the intrigue. They are supported by a terrific ensemble and a handful of musicians.

Richard Dowden’s programme notes quote an African saying that if Shakespeare were alive he would relate more with today’s Africa than with his home country and I suppose the same applies in reverse – Africans are living through the things Will writes about.

This is one of the best stagings of Julius Caesar’s I’ve seen and some of the finest acting on stage just now. Don’t miss it.

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