by Lynn on October 16, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Lyttelton Theatre, National Theatre, London, England. Until Nov. 5, 2022.

Written by Pearl Cleage

Directed by Lynette Linton

Set and costumes by Frankie Bradshaw

Lighting by Oliver Fenwick

Composer Benjamin Kwasi Burrell

Sound by George Dennis

Cast: Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo

Lincoln Conway

Eddie Elliott

Osy Ikhile

Kimberley Okoye

Helena Pipe

Sule Rimi

Giles Terera

Samira Wiley

Set in New York, Harlem, the summer of 1930.

Angel Allen (Samira Wiley) is a singer in a Harlem club who has just been fired and locked out of her apartment she was sharing with her boyfriend. Her platonic friend Guy Jacobs ( Giles Terera) takes her in. He is a dress designer. He holds on to the dream/hope that his friend Josephine Baker will like and want his costume designs for her show in Paris, France. He sends her design sketches. Josephine Baker likes them and asks for the real thing. Guy toils in creating them and sending five finished costumes to her in the hopes she will want more. Guy plans on moving to Paris to work with Baker. He suggests that Angel come with him since nothing is keeping her in New York. He also wants to leave because he does not feel welcome there at that time. Just as Josephine Baker found acceptance in Paris as a Black woman, Guy felt that his being gay and proud of his flamboyance in his clothes and attitudes would be better accepted in Paris. Angel tried to suggest to Guy that Josephine (who she also knew) might not come through, no matter how much faith Guy had in her.

When Angel was locked out of the apartment she was sharing with her boyfriend, she had a fight with him on the street. A courtly stranger, Leland Cunningham (Osy Ikhile) was passing and broke up the fight. He couldn’t stop thinking about Angel and looked her up a day later (he must have followed her) to see she was ok. A relationship formed and he wanted to marry Angel. Angel was swept up by this notion.

Leland was from Alabama. He was a widower. His wife died in child birth and he was mourning for them and his dead son. But Angel gave him new hope of a new life with her. Leland was a very religious man. He had strict ideas of how men and women should act. He looked askance at Guy and when he learned that Guy was gay, he thought Guy’s behaviour was deviant according to the bible.

Other people who lived in the same apartment complex as Guy and Angel were Delia Patterson (Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo) who wanted to start a planned parenthood clinic in the area and Sam Thomas (Sule Rimi) a doctor who wanted to help her with her plans. As matters turned out, Angel became pregnant by Leland and realized she didn’t want the baby or to marry Leland. She asked Sam for help here, even though abortion was illegal.

As luck turned out, Josephine Baker did come through. She loved the costumes Guy designed and sent him a ticket to come by boat with enough money to pay off all his debts and buy a ticket for Angel. Angel was going to tell Leland she had a miscarriage and couldn’t marry him. Only she told him the truth in a moment of angry honesty. Matters ended badly.

Most of the cast is British trained/born and their handling of the American accents was flawless. Samir Wiley as Angel is American born and trained at The Juilliard School in New York and is wonderful. As Guy, Giles Terera creates a man who is comfortable in his clothes, if not his skin. There is an easy grace to the movements that also beautifully show off Guy’s clothes. He has either designed them himself or has bought them—kudos to designer Frankie Bradshaw. Guy’s clothes are beautifully tailored but are ‘worked’ when Guy walks, which is usually quickly. The clothes flow with Guy’s movements. It’s a performance of a man who has such pride in himself and his world. It’s particularly moving when Guy feels that he is not ‘accepted’. He is a Black man in a Black part of the city, but he’s gay and that gets him in trouble.

Director Lynette Linton and playwright Pearl Cleage know their Chekhov, who said, that if a gun is shown in Act I it must go off in Act II. So when Leland finds out that Angel has had an abortion, he pulls out a gun and threatens to use it. On whom, is the mystery. We soon find out….

Pearl Cleage has created a play that explores Harlem in the 1930s—the clothes, the tight living quarters, the vibrancy, the camaraderie, the hopes and dreams and difficulties of the people who live there. Director Lynette Linton has created that world in the establishing of relationships. It’s a fascinating production that leaves you winded at the end.

London audiences support all sorts of theatre. The Lyttelton Theatre was packed and it was heartening to see that the audience was a mix of ages and ethnicities, many of whom were Black.

National Theatre Presents:

Plays until Nov. 5, 2022

Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (1 intermission)

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