Sunday, 5 October 2014

Theatre review: Rachel

Notable as the first play by an African-American woman to be professionally staged, Angelina Weld Grimké's Rachel was written in the wake of Birth of a Nation, and describes the experience of black Americans in the early years of the 20th century through an intimate domestic tragedy. Her husband and eldest son having been murdered for talking back to a white mob, Mrs Loving (Miquel Brown) moved her remaining children from the Deep South to an unnamed Northern state. Here the treatment of black people as second class citizens is not as overt, so Tom (Nakay Kpaka) and Rachel (Adelayo Adedayo) have grown up relatively happy and normal. The older they get, though, the more their equality seems an illusion, as they're reminded more of their true status in society every day. Tom's cheery, boisterous persona hides an increasing frustration at his inability to get a job he's more than qualified for; but it's the maternal, relentlessly optimistic Rachel whose mind will be most affected when the reality of being born the wrong colour for America's liking is forced on her.

Weld Grimké's play is hard-hitting but starts out lulling the audience into a false sense of security as we meet an entertaining and affectionate family and get to know their situation in often comic scenes.

Rachel's love and protective urge towards children is her defining characteristic from the start, and by the second scene she's adopted a neighbourhood boy whose parents died. Jimmy (William Wright-Neblett, alternating with Joel McDermott) provides a fresh lease of life for Mrs Loving, but for Rachel he starts to represent an uncertain future where black people's rights seem to be going backwards rather than forwards.

Rachel betrays the fact that it's a first play with some heavy-handed exposition, unsubtle character naming - as well as the Lovings we've got Rachel's suitor, John Strong (Zephryn Taitte) - and a final twist that's telegraphed too early, then underplayed. On the other hand, the playwright herself apparently described it as "propaganda," on which terms it's subtle, couching its message that equal education is meaningless if not everyone is allowed to make use of it afterwards, in a family that feels real.

As befits a landmark play by a black woman Rachel offers a number of good roles for black actresses, which Adedayo and Brown rise to, as does Sheila Atim in a small but pivotal role as a mother whose daughter's been frightened into permanent silence by racist bullying. Ola Ince's production is perhaps a bit too straightforward to conceal the play's problems, but it's moving all the same.

Rachel by Angelina Weld Grimké is booking until the 25th of October at the Finborough Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including interval.

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