Talk about a good year. Though up-and-coming playwright Ryan Calais Cameron laboured for aeons on his breakout play ‘For Black Boys Who Feel Suicidal When the Hue Gets Too Heavy’, it paid off in spades: after premiering at the tiny New Diorama and graduating to the prestigious Royal Court, it’s currently sitting pretty at the Apollo Theatre, his first West End hit.
With a good wind, this might even be his second. Virtually the formal opposite of the impressionistic, freeform, fourth wall breaking ‘For Black Boys…’, ‘Retrograde’ is a snappy three-hander period drama about a specific historical figure at a specific moment in time: the trailblazing Black Hollywood actor Sidney Poitier on the cusp of signing his first major studio contract.
The year is presumably 1956, and at first Poitier is conspicuously absent from the office of film studio bigwig Mr Parks (Daniel Lapine). He’s being buttered up by neurotic director Bobby (Ian Bonar), who is trying to sell him on the merits of his actor friend Sidney, who is supposed to be there to sign with the studio. But Bobby can sense hesitation from Parks.
After the surreal realism of ‘For Black Boys…’ - in which the six titular Black British men discussed their feelings in a surreal, brightly coloured limbo - Cameron revels in flexing his writing muscles in a totally different direction. The dialogue has a perfectly pitched, screwballish ‘Mad Men’ snap (did people really talk like this in the ‘50s? Certainly they talked like this in the films of the ‘50s!).
Enter Ivanno Jeremiah’s Poitier. Simultaneously serene and ill at ease, he’s friendly but all business, clearly determined to get in and out with as little hassle as possible. What he doesn’t want to do is participate in the white men’s pally Scotch drinking; he’s got two daughters and a third on the way and to make ends meet he’s working in a Harlem restaurant that he needs to get back to.
Unfortunately, Parks has other ideas. For starters, there’s a lot of performative bullshit he wants to put Sidney through – joking around, drinking, making him share his story. It’s like pulling teeth. But Poitier understands he needs his teeth pulled if he’s to make it in the business. He reluctantly opens up about the fact he’s an immigrant from the Bahamas, and that he elocuted his old accent away in order to get acting work. Parks demands he break out his old Bajan vowels. Incredulous at first but at heart pragmatic, Sidney goes along with it. Then things start to get really uncomfortable.
The play is essentially based upon a true incident, wherein Poitier – who was friends with a lot of prominent Black civil rights figures – was asked to sign a pledge of loyalty ahead of the making of the 1956 TV film ‘A Man is Ten Feet Tall’, and to denounce the prominent Black activist Paul Robeson, a man he admired intensely.
In Cameron’s play we see him astounded, horrified, eventually furious that he’s asked to do this, but also tempted – not through greed, but because he understands that change requires compromise, perhaps even sacrifice.
If Parks and Bobby are at heart shallow, cipher-like characters, Poitier is both terrifically written by Cameron and performed magnificently by Jeremiah, as an intelligent, powerfully composed man who has resolved to become the actor he knows he can be and understands the slings and microaggressions that come with this. All he wants to do is sign the damn contract and leave. But he is never a victim, but rather a pioneer who understands that playing nice with some white d-bags is acceptable as a means to an end (it’s hard to imagine Cameron isn’t addressing the wider issue of being a Black creative in a white industry here).
Amit Sharma’s production is a rousing and propulsive 90 minutes that I could absolutely see making Cameron a mint by transferring to Broadway with a big-name Hollywood actor in the Poiter role - it screams ‘star vehicle’.
I think ultimately there are a couple of problems with it, that don’t stop it being a gripping piece of theatre, but do hold it back from being as good as it could be. If there was greater depth and richness to Bobby and Parks, there would be greater depth and richness to the play, no question.
The biggest issue, though, is that the play’s ending feels like a fudge. I won’t give it away, but let’s just say that in real life Poitier wasn’t blacklisted and in his memoir he looks back on this incident with bemusement as much as anything. Cameron’s attempt to build it up into an operatic battle for Poitier’s soul – complete with appropriately thunderous speeches – ultimately feels overwrought, leaning into cliches of lone decent men standing up to the establishment. It’s a rousing but somewhat hollow ending.
‘Retrograde’ may well end up being a stonking hit. I don’t think it will be regarded as Cameron’s masterpiece. But it effortlessly seals his reputation as a major talent.