Playwright: Jackie Kay
Theatre: Bush Theatre
Director: Lynette Linton
Review by Irenosen Okojie
Novelist and poet Jackie Kay is known for her extraordinary, award winning books The Adoption Papers, Red Dust and Trumpet. Over an ever-expanding career, the Scottish Nigerian author has explored the hidden, complex tapestries of queer lives across different forms, often incorporating race and class. Kay has been part of the vanguard of bold artists interrogating what it means to be queer in Britain.
For Chiaroscuro, Kay’s 1986 debut into the world of theatre, things have come full circle with the play getting a new revival as part of the Bush Theatre’s Passing the Baton Season which re-introduces work by artists of colour who blazed a trail through the British playwriting scene.
Directed by the theatre’s new artistic director Lynette Linton, the play rounds off a season including new runs of Leave Taking by Winsome Pinnock and Strange Fruit by Caryl Phillips.
Set in London, featuring an all women of colour cast, Chiaroscuro is a funny, often tender piece on the lives of four friends whose simmering tensions rise to the surface when two of the women reveal they’re not just lovers, but in a relationship. Part concert, spoken word and gig theatre, it is an immersive experience with each actor playing their own instrument.
A piece on sexual identity and friendship, Chiaroscuro is seen through the lens of four characters: Beth the charismatic yet emotionally remote social worker who falls in love with sensitive Opal , a mixed-race woman whose fluctuating moods and insecurities hint at a troubled soul; Yomi, a Nigerian single mother with a prejudiced attitude on queerness that continues to cause problems in the group, and Aisha, an Asian carpenter secretly infatuated with one of the foursome.
In the atmospheric opening, artfully used aspects of symbolism anchor the characters familial histories: Beth’s photograph album, Opal’s broken mirror, Yomi’s black doll and Aisha’s cushion.
Early on in the story, we see Beth and Opal’s romance play out. Beth is outwardly confident, enigmatic and comfortable in her sense of self, a strong identity as a black, gay woman while Opal has a more fluid sexual identity having previously had relationships with men. She is more sensitive and although in love with Beth, is unsure of this new world she finds herself in or how to navigate it. The contrasts between them make for a recognisably awkward, touching courtship where two outsiders gravitate towards each other.
We are shown snippets from the lives of the other two characters, Yomi and Aisha, including a trip away and rehearsals together. Although these add to the overall vignette-style feel of the play, they seem slightly less fully realised than their counterparts.
They are given more space at the dinner gathering where an argument ensues after the true nature of Beth and Opal’s relationship comes to light. Here, Aisha’s frustrations as peacemaker resurfaces and the barbed exchanges between Beth, Opal and Yomi add comic relief.
There is a heated conversation about racial definitions, blackness, how a person categorises themselves as opposed to how the world sees them, particularly pertinent for Opal as the only mixed-raced member of the group. Lynette Linton’s direction produces a charged, intimate atmosphere with the gig theatre-style set up and moody hues of lighting.
Chiaroscuro features a strong cast. The multi talented Shiloh Coke’s Beth is compelling, possessing the kind of magnetism that comes from being comfortable in one’s identity. Coke also doubles as the play’s musical director and composer creating an aesthetic interspersed with songs specific to each character.
Anoushka Lucas’s beautifully rendered Opal pulls off a nuanced high wire act; a combination of love-struck vulnerability and self destruction while Gloria Onitiri’s spiky, acerbic Yomi and Preeya Kalidas’s cool, tomboyish Aisha add to the group’s overall chemistry.
The arrangement of the play is fractured with poetic meditations rather than a more structured offering. It would have been fascinating to see an even stronger narrative trajectory aside from Beth and Opal’s relationship as the central focus and the characters develop even more.
The play has the ingredients to take further risks with a strong theme, dynamic performances and musical flourishes. Chiaroscuro has a particular power about it, which is to see the hidden lives of queer women of colour reflected.
This is an important play by one of our finest authors. Let’s mark its significance and make room for more productions that celebrate the value of queer lives.
Chiaroscuro is at Bush Theatre until 5 October 2019.
Photo credit: Johan Persson