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New Bush boss Lynette Linton revives Jackie Kays’s 1986 play about lesbian and black identity as a tender piece of gig theatre
Lynette Linton’s first show as artistic director of the Bush is also the latest play in the theatre’s ongoing ‘Passing the Baton’ series, dedicated to restaging neglected or forgotten works by artists of colour.
Jackie Kay – the Scottish poet laureate – is hardly a forgotten figure, but this play is an early work, written for Theatre of Black Women in 1986.
A story of four young black and brown women, articulately wrangling with both their heritage and their sexualities as they navigate a world that treats them differently based on the shade of their skin or the gender of their partner, ‘Chiaroscuro’ is a reminder that identity politics is nothing new.
Linton’s production – smartly – doesn’t do too much to evoke the period. The pink neon lighting and high-waisted jeans feel as 2019 as they do 1986. So although the prejudices Kay’s characters face are of their moment, we’re quietly invited not to see it as a totally different time or a different world. Still, it is heartbreaking to hear so many lines about fearing to be honest about love, or that being a black lesbian consigns you to loneliness.
Staged as gig theatre, the play is framed through the four characters coming together in a recording studio, telling the narrative through song too. There’s a real undertow of care and generosity, of women supporting each other to find their stories, their songs, their selves.
Beth, an outreach worker, meets Opal, a nurse; they begin dating. For Opal, it’s a revelation and a touch terrifying: having been through the care system, she’s both fearful and needy in love. They’re friends with Aisha, but at a dinner party, things get heated with her mate Yomi – a black single mother, who deems lesbianism ‘unnatural’, and calls Opal ‘half-caste’. The play is as much about recognising internalised prejudices as it is about facing it from others.
It’s not really clear why Aisha is friends with Yomi, or puts up with her behaviour. In fact, a lot of the characterisation is pretty sketchy. But Gloria Onitiri as Yomi gives a big, charismatic performance, both roaring and purring. Shiloh Coke, who also wrote the gorgeous, soulful music, is absolutely hilarious as Beth – dry and deadpan with impeccable timing, she gets laughs on almost every line. Anoushka Lucas struggles with some of Kay’s dialogue, but physically embodies Opal’s wobbly, wounded guilelessness: hands clutch her heart, fingers stroke her sternum.
This is an exceptionally tender piece. Linton allows many touching moments to unfurl gently – or suddenly ambushes you with emotion. And the play’s refusal to be neat and logical and follow the expected theatrical form feels like an act of resistance. Through its fragmentary, ever-shifting storytelling structure – snatches of scenes; beautiful harmonising; poetic monologues – it allows these women to find their own way to tell their story.