At first glance, rising star playwright Dipo Baruwa-Etti’s new show for Paines Plough looks like it might be a worthy but pretty simplistic drama about Toye, a gifted Black GCSE student who challenges his school over the lack of Black British history on the syllabus. You know how it is: system is bad, boy stands up to system, boy triumphs over system. That sort of thing. But ‘Half-Empty Glasses’ is an awful lot cleverer than that.
Toye is best friends with Asha (Sara Hazemi) and Remi (Princess Khumalo), who is the head girl of his school. Together, they set up a sort of Black history lunch club to expand their classmates’ horizons. So far, so polite. But after the successful first session, Toye becomes increasingly fussy about which figures are talked about. The school starts trying to clamp down on the impromptu lessons, using Remi as a reluctant enforcer. And loyal Asha starts to clash with Toye after he tetchily dismisses her when she suggests the sessions might include editions reflecting her own Middle Eastern background.
Toye is not necessarily wrong about the curriculum requiring reform. But his off-hand dismissal of anything his female friends have to say is troubling. He angrily struggles to justify why he’s being so uncompromising about disrupting this school when he’s actually working hard to try and get a transfer on a music scholarship to a private school: Remi and Asha are going to be left to clean up the mess. And moreover, it’s very clear that his obsessive anger at the school is heavily due to displaced rage at his frail, Parkinson’s-suffering dad’s failing health.
It’s a clever and compassionate play, with a sparky young cast, brightly directed by Kaleya Baxe. Baruwa-Etti doesn’t condemn Toye, but shows him to be a complicated and flawed figure. You’d call aspects of his behaviour toxic masculinity but he’s still very much redeemable. There are constant references to Martin Luthor King’s fallibility dotted throughout the play, a reminder that it’s not healthy to view people who do the right thing as actual saints. ‘Half-Empty Glasses’ doesn’t call for an end to activism – just for empathy in activism.