Chiaroscuro begins with naming, the most direct way of beginning to explain how we got here.
Four women take up positions at keyboard, electric guitar, drum pad and microphone and tell us how they came to be called Aisha, Beth, Opal and Yomi (short for Abayomi). Jackie Kay’s play wants us to feel the easy camaraderie between these women; they are more than friends, they know each other, telling things about each other’s histories and most private corners back to each other and to us, too. “Is that your nightmare?” Beth asks her lover, Opal, who answers, “Some of it.” There’s a joke about being psychic. They overlap and settle on each other.
Lynette Linton’s production, her first since she took up helm as artistic director of the Bush Theatre this year, has a feel for the looseness Kay wants Chiaroscuro to have. It’s names, mothers and grandmothers which come first, of course, learning how these women actually know each other later. Maybe your birth was easy; maybe you refused to leave and had to be cut out at midnight, and never cried when they spanked you, a bad sign. Kay wants us to feel the influence of these beginnings as well as the still-felt histories of black dispossessions and what can happen when children grow up unloved, skipped over, with no-one to name them after.
The actors dip in and out of poetry (or song) while they comfort each other, argue, play pool, talk about their “countries of origin” and babies, and remember. They swap instruments and all sing; Beth (the fantastic Shiloh Coke, also responsible for the play’s smooth, sliding music) is much less sure of herself than she seems at first in her relationship with Opal (Anoushka Lucas), who despite her name is all jagged edges, end- and loss-focused, disgusted by the face she sees in the mirror.
It feels a bit like Aisha (a clear-voiced Preeya Kalidas) and Yomi (Gloria Onitiri) unfortunately get less of a look in; Aisha’s hiding her sexuality from Yomi and pining after Beth, while Yomi has a very last minute change of homophobic heart. But though Onitiri is arresting throughout, her voice slowing towards the end of each line in a drawl, there isn’t much space for her confused worry about her child Fabayo, or for learning much about Aisha.
Chiaroscuro, of course, isn’t really interested in a conventional balancing of narrative threads, in making it clear to us if a divide exists between the songs (illustrative, rather than plot-influencing) and the snatches of scenes – it’s like if you wrote a band AU for your own friends. It doesn’t need to make logical sense. Linton’s production, however, isn’t really weird enough to lean into and make a home out of the weirdnesses of Kay’s text; a dinner scene, the most traditionally and familiarly dramatic point for us, captures our attention, but much of the direction is unvarying and a bit tremulous. It all feels loose; characters don’t touch each other much and drift around the space.
During one of Opal’s nightmares, she’s moved briefly by the others while sitting on the keyboard’s deck, but the opportunity also to use the set’s flightcases in this way is missed. Moi Tran’s design tends to denim for this lesbian-dominant group of friends and is proudly gig-theatre, with cables stuck in loops with neon tape and small, circular mirrors. Jose Tevar’s lighting design opts for bi flag colours, the pillars sometimes flexing a strip of pink, at other times lost in a bereft blue.
This is the last production in the Bush’s Passing the Baton season, a three-year effort to revive work by British BAME playwrights for a new audience, also commissioning and mentoring three emerging BAME playwrights to produce full-length plays. While Caryl Phillips’ Strange Fruit floundered occasionally, Winsome Pinnock’s Leave Taking was perhaps the most successful of the three, with a simple, sensitive production which was Madani Younis’ penultimate production at the Bush while artistic director. Again, this is Linton’s first.
Watching all three of these plays over the past year has felt frustrating as well as invigorating sometimes: we’ve continued to hear their characters’ conversations and disagreements about race so many times and in so many forms since these plays were first produced, and we’ll go on hearing them, well- or not-so-well-imitated or transformed. Passing the Baton has been a great and careful refocusing of attention on the history of Black British playwriting in this country. With any luck, Linton will carry the Bush’s regard and respect for those who wrote before us into her programming beyond her first year, and balance it against the theatre’s fierce support for new writing. I’m sad to see this initiative go, but grateful for what is has accomplished.
Chiaroscuro is on at the Bush Theatre till 5th October. More info here.