Posts Tagged ‘Tinuke Craig’

I don’t think either the history of the Butetown area of Cardiff, or Tiger Bay as it’s also known, or the plight of black American GIs in the UK during the Second World War are particularly well known, so it’s good to see both featured in Diana Nneka Atuona’s excellent new play.

Tiger Bay was the home of Cardiff docks, once the largest in the world, sending coal from the South Wales valleys to virtually every corner of the planet. It was one of the first places to receive immigrants to the UK and with much inter-racial marriage soon became a melting pot. The play is set during the war in the unofficial boarding house of Gwyneth, where she lives with her young mixed race daughters Connie & Georgie. Her Nigerian husband is at sea it seems. Her current guests include local merchant sailor Patsy, West Indian Norman and Dullah, a muslim from the Muddle East or Asian sub-continent. Dullah’s girlfriend, local ‘coloured’ girl Peggy is a frequent visitor.

‘Coloured’ GIs are confined to their barracks in nearby Maindy, but there has been an incident where a white officer has been murdered and two ‘coloured’ soldiers are on the run. Unbeknown to the other, one has been killed. His friend Nate is hiding out in the boarding house’s back yard. After being found by Gwyneth’s youngest daughter Georgie, he is taken in and welcomed, shocked at the existence of, and being accepted in, an unsegregated place like this. They don’t initially know what he’s running from but they get caught up in his predicament.

There’s a really authentic sense of location and period in Tinuke Craig’s production, with an excellent design by Peter McKintosh including a lot of period detail. The first part is a touch slow, largely because there’s so much background to cover, but I was content absorbing the atmosphere of the period and the place. The faithful local accents (I was brought up 12 miles away) added to the authenticity (some actors, like Bethan-Mary James, are clearly from the area).

It’s really well performed, with a cast led by Sarah Parish as Welsh matriarch Gwyneth who’s come here from the valleys, a pitch perfect performance. There are hugely impressive professional stage debuts by Rita Bernard-Shaw as Connie and Samuel Adewunmi as Nate, and on the night I went, another auspicious stage debut by Rosie Ekenna as young Georgie.

As if to illustrate my little known history point, in the interval the American gentleman sitting next to me asked why the British wouldn’t allow the GIs to mix with the local community. Little known over there as well as over here it seems.

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August Wilson wrote a series of ten plays between 1982 and 2005 covering the black American experience in each decade of the 20th Century, all bar one set in his home city of Pittsburgh, most in the Hill District of that city. They are now known as the American Century Cycle or the Pittsburgh Cycle. Jitney was the first to be written, covering the 1970’s. It visited the NT twenty-one years ago, winning the Olivier Award for Best New Play. This is the first time we’ve seen it in London since, in a home grown production.

A jitney is an unlicensed cab serving communities licensed cabs won’t cover. The play is set in the office of one such service, run by well respected Becker. The drivers include recent Vietnam vet Youngblood, older Korean vet Doub, drinker Fielder and Turnbo – a gossip and a stirrer. Shealy runs a betting business from the office and Philmore, hotel doorman and frequent passenger, is a regular visitor. With the backdrop of gentrification (the office is about to be demolished), there are two main stories – Becker’s son Booster’s release from prison and Youngblood’s determination to buy a house for his wife and child.

It takes a while to take off, with a lot of scene-setting and character introductions, and it could do with losing 20 minutes or so, but there’s no doubting the quality of the writing and its importance as a modern classic. Tinuke Craig’s production and Alex Lowde’s uber realistic design give it real authenticity and the ensemble is simply terrific. Yet again an understudy, Blair Gyabaah playing Booster, rises to the challenge with an impressive professional stage debut. There isn’t a weak link in this outstanding cast.

Great to see it again, and in such a good production.

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