Play: Strange Fruit
Playwright: Caryl Phillips
Director: Nancy Medina
Theatre: Bush Theatre
Review by Cherise Lopes-Baker
Revived by the Bush Theatre as part of its Passing the Baton season, Strange Fruit, a kitchen sink drama by Caryl Phillips, is a slow burn excavation into inter-generational trauma. Set in the late 70s/ early 1980s, Phillips’ play follows an immigrant family cut off from their Caribbean roots and forced to come to terms with the hostile environment around them in England.
Diasporic desperation simmers to a boil across the chintzy decorated stage, as each character finds a way to survive the oppression of racism and the tourniquet immigrating has put on their cultural roots. Jonathan Ajayi, playing young Errol, zealously prowls the stage with barely contained righteous anger. Hungry with idealism, he worships the Black Power path his older brother Alvin has set out for him.
Alvin, played by Tok Stephen, hopes to find acceptance and identity in the father and the home country he never knew. He travels to the Caribbean for his grandfather’s funeral and comes back disillusioned and hunting for truth. Their mother Vivian, played expertly by Rakie Ayola, potters around the domestic stage, a fragile fount of nervous tenacity. First generation immigrant, she embraces ‘good immigrant’ assimilation as a means of survival in the hopes that mobility is possible for her sons.
Frustrated with their mother’s willingness and dedication to play what they recognise is a rigged game, the two brothers explode in protracted raging monologues, lancing the trauma they keep pent up inside. The sunken stage becomes a fighter’s ring as characters circle each other, words and fists coming to blows, misogyny and mental illness ever present. Unable to connect, alienated by their individual trauma, the family tears apart at the seams. Secrets spill over and alliances teeter on the precipice of ruin, culminating in a melodramatic and haunting final act.
Vernice (Debra Michaels) as the nosy, crude but supportive neighbour, and Shelley ( Tilly Steele) as Errol’s vacuous but loyal girlfriend, round out the emotionally evocative cast, offering depth and challenges to this insular family drama.
Strange Fruit is at Bush Theatre until 27 July 2019
Photo credit: Helen Murray