Amiri Baraka’s poetic and confronting play was written and first performed in 1964 in New York. 55 years later in the Tristan Bates Theatre, we are invited by this production to question what change we’ve seen in that time.
While Amiri Baraka’s writing is playful and sharp and does raise some questions intellectually for the audience, the acting and directing don’t hold enough truth for the audience to engage emotionally.
The decision to retain all the original cultural references while not obeying them with what is presented on stage flags up many jarring moments where the spoken word doesn’t match what we are being shown. Within a naturalistic setting, this is both distracting and frustrating. This is also true of the design, where some characters and ensemble members handle accurate props while some mime holding onto rails.
This lack of detail and consistency is true of the production as a whole which is extremely generalised. The opening movement sequence presumably designed to evoke the hustle and bustle of the subway is the first in many hugely overt and demonstrative displays from the ensemble.
Cheska Hill-Wood as Lula gives a very generic ‘odd free spirit slash sociopath’ characterisation to what could have been a nuanced and troubling embodiment of white privilege and this means Lula is easily dismissed as a nasty idiot with no apparent grasp on reality. Without the depth and humanity in Lula, we are not seeing a plausible and convincing racist but rather a whirling overtly flirty stock character whose generic and disingenuous responses kill any hope of us exposing any troubling parts of our own unconscious bias. Instead of witnessing the spider welcoming someone into her silky web, we just see the local nutter toying inexplicably coquettishly with some bloke on the subway.
James Barnes as Clay tries his best but also fails to bring the level of complexity required and again, his final moment doesn’t inspire the horror it should. This isn’t helped by the ensemble who in these vital moments have been directed into very demonstrative emotional reactions which are difficult to relate to. It’s almost impossible to follow the emotional logic being played by anyone at some points. Clay’s long speech to the other passengers seems to cause each of them to have a painful existential crisis. The observer’s private pain is not the focus of the scene and this leaves the audience navigating the private trauma of five non-speaking strangers.
The directing and acting do not do justice to the questions this production is attempting to raise. In the right hands, the writers beautiful and lyrical musings could have been a damning indictment of our relationship with and to race. In this production, not enough believable humanity can be seen in any of the characterisations to go on that journey and in that sense, it fails to move the audience.