This National Theatre production is based on a novel of the same name by Andrea Levy, adapted by Helen Edmundson and directed by Rufus Norris. The play received critical acclaim after selling out last year, so I was pleased to see that the National Theatre released a recording of the production on their YouTube channel last week. From the comfort of my room I enjoyed a fantastic virtual theatre experience that rivals some of my physical ones, which only serves as a testament to the quality of this production.
The relationship between the West Indies and the United Kingdom is inextricable and Katrina Lindsay’s creative set design bounces between the two locations effortlessly. We begin in rural Jamaica, evidenced by the warm lighting, vast use of stage space and natural earthy backdrop. This is contrasted to the grey, cold and congested stage setting for London and Lincolnshire further into the production.
Migration as a recurring theme is introduced early as our first heroine leaves home to live under the care of relatives. Young Hortense (Leah Harvey), is fair-skinned and presumably mixed race though this is not confirmed in the story. This remains worth mentioning as her ‘golden skin’ is marvelled by her grandmother and echoed again by an older Hortense looking for a ‘golden life’ to match her complexion. Hortense’s upbringing allowed her to invest in colourist ideals and this manifests later in the play when she weaponizes the fairness of her skin to the detriment of her darker skinned friend. This perception of self is soon aggressively interrupted by the racism she encounters in the UK, being labelled a ‘darkie’ by white Brits. It was interesting to see colourism operating solely within blackness but being dwarfed by the larger unrelenting machine of racism that only sees ‘whites’ and ‘others’.
Queenie (Aisling Loftus), our second heroine, yearns to escape her Lincolnshire farm life and move to the bustling city of London. Her migration just slightly precedes that of our British Jamaican characters who embark upon the HMT Empire Windrush, after their efforts in the Second World War, a scene fantastically depicted using shadows and a large tableau of the ship in the background. In the mid-forties, Commonwealth settlers were invited to help rebuild Britain and were promised job opportunities alongside British citizenship by proxy of the Commonwealth. This is illustrated through the enthusiasm of standout performer Gershwyn Eustache Jr who played the endearing Gilbert, who dreams of studying the law in England after serving in the RAF. His magnetic energy and lovable character made watching him suffer from racism all the more heart-wrenching. That being said, Leah Harvey’s portrayal of highly-strung Hortense was very convincing and the script humanised an otherwise hard to love character.
Alongside racism, respectability was another theme that stood out for me. Hortense and her cousin Michael were raised in colonial Jamaica with strict Christian values and British Victorian manners. The irony was not lost on the audience that Hortense was far more polite and ‘proper’ than any of the native people she encountered in England.
The production also requires the audience to reflect on women’s status in the 1940s. Hortense did not see it fitting for an unmarried woman to travel alone as it was not respectable. Queenie could only leave Lincolnshire through the prospect of an unfulfilling and reluctant marriage. It led me to contemplate how different social mobility was/is for white and black women, especially in the mid-twentieth century. Queenie’s journey from farm girl to landlady is linear, with marriage being the primary step. Hortense’s journey from schoolteacher in Jamaica to schoolteacher in England is cumbersome, disparaging and interrupted. Hortense and Gilbert’s personal narratives and dreams were halted when they reached the UK. Instead of focussing on new opportunities and their dreams, they had to focus on survival. Toni Morrison once said that a function of racism is distraction. “It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again, your reason for being.” Gilbert’s frustration was infectious when he was forced to remain calm in a hostile working environment to avoid being portrayed as the aggressor. This constraint was reflected in the play by the second act being mostly confined to three small rooms, as opposed to the open bright space when our characters are in Jamaica.
Aisling Loftus’ interpretation of well-meaning, working class Queenie perfectly encapsulated ‘friendly’ unintended racism through implicit bias, in contrast to her husband Bernard’s (Andrew Rothney) explicit and violent prejudice. At times I felt the story was directed through a lens that purported American racism to be ‘extra strength’ and British racism to be milder. The American GIs would enforce segregation at the English cinema (met with little contention from the locals) while the British homeowners would avoid taking on ‘coloured’ tenants or take offence to black women not standing aside for white women to pass in the street. Gilbert’s moving speech about black West Indian soldiers fighting alongside the white British and American soldiers, but still being deemed inferior reminded me of Akala’s comment in his novel Natives; highlighting that white supremacy allows even the most impoverished white man to feel he is above black people.
Reflecting upon the social and economic exclusion, racial prejudice and violence the British Commonwealth settlers faced upon arrival, in combination with the Home Office’s deplorable Windrush scandal enhanced the profound sense of gratitude I already feel toward the Windrush generation. The story also made me consider how we can often take our surroundings for granted under the impression that ‘the grass is always greener’ elsewhere. The way the director depicted the echoing words of Gilbert’s cousin and Miss Joelle at the back of the stage representing the back of the minds of Gilbert and Hortense, invited the audience to wonder if our character’s regretted their decisions to leave home. Overall, I thought the play was a little long at three hours, but the story did not plateau at any point. Further exploration of Hortense’s parentage would have made the colourism themes stronger. It also would have given the ending more impact, as she reminds the audience that she was raised by surrogate parents. Special mention must be given to the brilliant CJ Beckford who played the charismatic, rolling stone Michael Roberts and connected the plots across the two islands seamlessly.
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