In the afterlife, a council of ancestors are called to decide if they will bless the wedding of one of their descendants on earth. In London, Tara has ambushed her Nigerian parents with the news that she’s getting married in a few months – not to a man as they’d expected and hoped, even when she came out as bisexual, but to her girlfriend Leah. Her parents refuse to come to the wedding. The High Table explores the aftershocks of this explosive confrontation, shaking the foundations of both Tara’s relationship with her parents and her relationship with Leah as the wedding draws nearer.
Temi Wilkey’s assured debut play emphasises the importance of family; both the family you were born into, and the family you choose for yourself. Wilkey captures the complexity of these relationships, and the ways in which love battles to coexist with denial of a key part of the other person. Although Tara at first performs defiance in response to her family’s rejection of her partner, their intended absence at the wedding cuts deep. ‘What does it really mean without your family there?’, she asks Leah, whose own mum took her wedding dress shopping. The empty high table, which should be full of celebrating relatives, is a powerful symbol of rejection. In turn, Leah starts to feel rejected by Tara when she neglects the wedding preparations.
The play takes place in two worlds, between the world of the living and the world of the dead. Mohamed Gueye’s drumming imbues the afterlife scenes with an atmosphere of ritual. The red, dusty earth of Natasha Jenkins’ set makes the play seem to take place between worlds, as the ancestors wait to be reincarnated. Under Daniel Bailey’s direction, the scenes seep into each other with slow motion, balletic transitions, though this sometimes undermines the naturalism of the earth-bound scenes. He also brings out the humour of Wilkey’s script, amidst its serious subject matter.
Wilkey offers a nuanced, compassionate insight into homophobia within Nigerian culture. In the afterlife scenes, ancestors from different eras air opposing views. The two ancestors born under British colonialism agree that homosexuality is a sin and not African. However, the eldest ancestor – embodied with stately dignity by Jumoké Fashola – declares ‘before the white man came, we were sacred then’, launching into an epic poem describing her relationship with her ‘shadow’. Clever casting choices mean that actors often play two characters with opposing beliefs about homosexuality, perhaps suggesting that minds can be changed: Fashola also plays Tara’s mother; Ibinabo Jack plays both Leah and a devout Christian ancestor who does not approve of the relationship, bringing depth and humour to both characters.
In the family drama playing out on earth, there is a powerful plot strand about Tara’s uncle Teju, who lives in Nigeria where homosexuality is illegal. Going to a gay bar puts him in grave danger, leading to arrest and blackmail. When he appeals to his brother Segun for help to get him asylum in England, he tells him to resist temptation and be more discrete. Tara’s discovery of closer kinship with Teju than she realised is beautifully written in its bitter-sweetness.
What is most remarkable about The High Table is its affirmation and celebration of black queer love. As Tara and Leah, Cherrelle Skeete and Ibinabo Jack make small details bloom into an intimate relationship, such as Tara gently teasing Leah for her inability to do the Electric Slide, a staple of black weddings. It is so joyful to watch these characters get the happy ending they deserve (dressed in killer outfits too). And, on press night, it was joyful to watch the cast, crew and members of the audience jump onto the stage to dance.
The High Table is on at Bush Theatre till 21st March, then at Birmingham Rep. More info here.