Wednesday 10 May 2023

Theatre review: Retrograde

Sidney Poitier would probably be the name most people would come up with if you asked who was the first black movie star to really achieve global fame and acclaim, but needless to say he didn't get to be a trailblazer without some major obstacles. Ryan Calais Cameron's Retrograde dramatises one particularly critical turning point, but the challenges the actor faces are a bit more complicated than pure, bare-faced racism. In the 1950s Poitier's (Ivanno Jeremiah) star is on the rise, and studios are interested. But there's also rumours that he turned down a lucrative role because he didn't want to play a passive black stereotype, so he might have a few more opinions and principles than Hollywood likes in its stars. His next step up could be a role in a TV movie written by his friend Bobby (Ian Bonar,) a minor screenwriter who's been the first person to offer him a role in which he'd be equal or senior to the white cast.

NBC are interested, and signing a contract seems to be a mere formality when they arrive for a meeting with the network's Executive Lawyer Mr Parks (Daniel Lapaine.)

There's plenty of '50s wise guy bluster, particularly between the two white men, and Bobby's insistence on hanging around for Sidney's meeting to make sure he doesn't say something that'll jeopardise the deal adds a comic awkwardness. Add the surface bonhomie contrasting with the very real sense of who has the power in the room, and Parks' dragging out the actual signing of the contract becomes a mix of spiky comedy and palpable tension. (Some SPOILERS from the next paragraph on.)

There's a confrontation on the way once Bobby is finally sent out of the room, but it's not about race, or at least not in the way the first half-hour has led us to believe: Mr Parks doesn't so much have an offer for Sidney as an ultimatum, because these are the days of the McCarthy witch hunts, and celebrities who are vocal in their progressive views can easily find themselves the next to be accused of Communist sympathies. Poitier can sign a statement of allegiance to "American values," publicly accuse Paul Robeson, and get his NBC contract; or he can be the next one up in front of HUAC.

I gave a spoiler warning because part of what's satisfying about Cameron's play is this misdirect about where it's going, and the little clues in what Parks says that hint at who he's really working for. Another of the highlights is the dialogue - there's a cheesy detective movie authenticity to some of the manly banter ("I'll give ya a knuckle sandwich that'll make you so cross-eyed you'll be eating off someone else's plate") but some of it's so witty it elevates the form ("so much shit comes out of your mouth your ass must be jealous.") And then there's the nuanced commentary of the story itself: If it does all come back round to race, it's in an insidious way, with the FBI using the Red Scare as a weapon against the Civil Rights movement.

Amit Sharma's production has a claustrophobic set from Frankie Bradshaw that evokes the summer heat the men frequently reference, but as well as the wider political themes the play also comes across as a love letter to Poitier and his integrity, something Jeremiah embodies: He's not really a Sidney Poitier lookalike on paper, but he's got the vocal and physical mannerisms down to an extent that transforms him. He balances the silky charm of a man who convinced the world it was ready for a black movie star, with the coiled spring of someone whose perfectly justifiable anger has to be suppressed lest he be dismissed as an Angry Black Man; on the occasions when the anger does break out he has hints of the Barbadian accent he was told to lose.

The other two cast members bring the right mix of personalities to keep the tension going: Bonar's Bobby is such a mix of genuine integrity and personal weakness that he keeps you guessing as to which will win out in the end; Lapaine just get more demonic as the play progresses ("the horns are just there to keep the halo in place.") This is interesting theatre both as history and commentary on how the world has and hasn't changed; well-written both in terms of dialogue and the twists and turns of its plot.

Retrograde by Ryan Calais Cameron is booking until the 27th of May at the Kiln Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

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