Play: The Gift
Theatre: Stratford East
Playwright: Janice Okoh
Director: Dawn Walton
Review by Tamera Heron
The Gift, a new play by Janice Okoh, is inspired by the life of Sarah Forbes Bonnetta, a young West African girl gifted to Queen Victoria in the mid-nineteenth century (hence the title). In this production, Okoh invites the audience to time travel between then and now to consider how much has changed.
In Act One we meet the newlyweds – Sarah Forbes Bonnetta (Shannon Hayes) and her husband James Davies (Dave Fishley) – at their Brighton home in 1862. They are visited by Sarah’s guardian, Mrs Schoen (Rebecca Charles), alongside two unexpected guests in the form of Reverend Venn (Richard Teverson) and Harriet Waller (Joanna Brookes), for a cup of tea.
The conversation turns to Sarah’s upbringing, revealing Harriet’s preconception of Africans as either savages or people who are in dire need of saving, educating and etiquette training. Reflecting the society’s predominant opinion of black people and, more specifically, Africans during this period, her brazen ignorance is sadly bemusing.
Act Two transports the audience to present day Cheshire and the home of Sarah (Donna Berlin) James (Dave Fishley) and their adopted daughter. With the couples in the past and present sharing the same names, playwright Okoh illustrates the rebirth of the same values and experiences from the past.
As in Act One, the modern-day Sarah and James receive a surprise visit, this time from their neighbors: the confrontational Ben (Richard Teverson) and his intense wife Harriet (Rebecca Charles). Ben and Harriet’s overcompensating kindness feels intrusive and self-motivated; the teatime topics centering on racism and the use of politically correct terminology. It’s the strongest act of the play, triggering most of the laughs and a few gasps with its surprise twist.
Act Three takes a surreal turn. Exhausted by challenges in her own life, contemporary Sarah attempts to get Sarah Forbes Bonnetta to halt the progression of the British Empire in the hope it will make life fairer for Black Britons in the future. When modern day Sarah says: “We were everything before her. Before the lies about our inferiority set in. Before we were written out of history”, it feels like The Gift is an attempt by Okoh to write it back in.
Although this act feels like a rushed out of body experience – the choppy transition makes the drama appear jumbled and chaotic – this narrative switch by the director Walton intensifies the final act and the important decisions made by the two Sarah’s.
Throughout Okoh’s play there are similarities between several characters, despite their lives being over a century apart, including the persistence of colonial thinking in modern day Britain and its appearance in everyday racism and unconscious bias.
Overall, The Gift is a humorous play that uses the quintessentially British tradition of tea to examine the values of a (post) imperial society, and delves into the definitions of what it means to be Black and British against a backdrop of white privilege.
The Gift is playing at Stratford East until 15th February 2020.
Picture credit: Ellie Kurttz