Angelina Weld Grimké's rediscovered American play about racism is vital history, but not vital theatre.
The protagonist of Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’ is haunted by the ghost of her baby, who she kills to save from slavery. The eponymous heroine of this rediscovered American play, written midway between the end of slavery and the civil rights explosion of the ’60s, has perhaps a still more chilling predicament. As she watches escalating racism blight the lives of her fellow African-Americans, she is haunted by the solicitous weeping of the babies she has not yet borne.
Staged by Finborough artistic director Neil McPherson as part of Black History Month, Angelina Weld Grimké’s ‘Rachel’ (originally titled ‘Blessed Are the Barren’) is the first play by an African American woman to have received a professional production (in Washington DC, in 1916). Despite the dark and still shocking subject matter and solid performances, it is also a strangely dull affair.
Living in a top floor flat with her mother and brother, Rachel (Adelayo Adedayo) is an exuberant young woman whose natural destiny as wife and mother may as well be flashing above her head in neon. She stumbles soulfully through lullabies and lovesongs at the little upright piano. She zings with the conspiratorial humour of a Jane Austen heroine in the company of suitor John Strong (played with easy charisma by Zephryn Taitte). And she plays passionately with the neighbour’s little boy. But then she learns the truth about her father and elder brother’s deaths, and Little Jimmy starts getting called ‘nigger’ at school.
Living with Rachel, her mother says, is like being ‘shut up with dynamite’. Adedayo’s closing speech is genuinely distressing, as her youthful intensity tragically redirects itself in self-sacrificial despair. But the play itself is too often repetitive, flatly sentimental and curiously devoid of subtext. This is vital history, but not vital theatre.