The Royal Court is forever exploring new forms to tell a story on stage, but My Kind of People, its latest downstairs offering, goes to show that sometimes classical form and 4th wall realism does it best when painting the complex picture that is modern-day Britain. This latest play by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti calls for moral commitment from its talented cast and gets it. Her complicated examination of racism, mixed-race marriages and multicultural communities, are exercises in exposing bitter truths and hypocrisy, though the play is also aspirational at heart.
Aspirational implies judgment because the two go hand in hand. But while the characters at the party husband and wife Gary and Nicky throw for their friend Mark, are all busy at it under the surface as, in their various ways, they seek to better their social standing, Kaur Bhatti takes care to ask us not to judge but to see and understand the confusions and ambiguities that swirl inside any person as a result of their upbringing and cultural and social experiences. When Gary’s white boss, Victoria turns up at the party and drops heavy-handed racist and patronising remarks, it all starts to break down for Gary, who is black. Nicky, who is white, is less put out than her husband, who finally confronts Victoria at a failed interview. Not surprisingly, Victoria fails to realise her conscious and unconscious bias, which is the final straw for him – it sets off a chain of catastrophic domestic incidents and internal reckoning on his part. Kaur Bhatti parallels this with the breakdown of his and Nicky’s community of friends. The Muslim couple, Anjum (Manjinder Virk) and Mo (Asif Khan), on such intimate terms with them at the party and so keen to help out with their son’s studying (a nice bit of commentary on how society is forcing parents to get pushy), reveal their real prejudiced feelings towards Nicky; meanwhile, Gary’s sister Karen (Petra Letang) and his best friend Mark (Thomas Coombes), take sides, though for Mark it is a decision not based on morality. Like Anna Fleischle’s moving brutalist set, relationships keep shifting from axis to axis, only to judder back into place again, yet different somehow. All of the characters are caught in wilting moments where their hypocrisies, paranoias and manoeuvrings to get what they want are exposed. A dance movement moment early on in the show is directed by Michael Buffong to face the audience, perhaps implying that the characters “present” a version of themselves, hiding their real truths. It is the only time they come near to breaking the wall.
In a way, though this piece is a slick satirical comedy with sharp commentary on the violence and hatred that is afforded by our social structures and racial and cultural biases, it is also about one man’s journey, Gary’s. I found myself thinking about Harold Loomis’ journey in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (August Wilson) afterwards. Different era, but the psychic trauma that racism gives and is handed down from generation to generation is likely similar. For Gary too it suddenly becomes impossible to go on pretending it is not there, as his sister Karen wants and expects him to. His cry for equality “Where can I just be a man?” is perhaps the most important part of the play, yet Richie Campbell’s performance as Gary is so nuanced you’d miss it if you blinked. Nicky’s response (a more blunt Claire–Louise Cordwell) “I need you” is typical. She ignores Gary’s pain, almost to the point of dismissing it in favour of her own – as if demanding that her problems around a lack of social mobility take priority. The play seems to be saying that inequality is variable. Nearly everyone has it, just that some have it far greater than others. This means that people from different experiences and cultures will not always start their comparisons from the same baselines. Gary is happy with his job and house, for him it is enough. It is the racism he cannot endure. But Nicky expects and wants more from life. This sense of accounting for one’s place in life by the amount you feel equal or unequal in it allows for Nicky to simultaneously write off Gary’s experiences and needs whilst placing her own concerns–that her children should not end up like her and Gary–first. Yet both of them are working class, so what is going on here? White privilege is what is going on. Whether Nicky knows it or not, she believes that her concerns are more important.
Kaur Bhatti’s play is about how the violence of social oppression and racism forms people and how independent forms of discrimination can overlap each other. She uses the seductive form of satire to bring us into one black man’s harrowing journey and shows him caught between two white women, who, whether meaning to or not and in varying degrees, do their best to assert themselves over him. We all want to laugh with and at the characters–and then she has us in the palm of her hand when it comes to the nitty-gritty. At those moments, there is complete and sometimes stunned silence in the auditorium. None more so when Gary decides upon something life-changing. You feel that the audience will it different for him, yet in some ways, it cannot be so. Society has brought this to him. In the end, it feels like everything is over for almost everyone, yet something prevails–and it is the idea that we can all transcend those external pressures and abuses and discriminations and the pressures they bring to bear on us. It might sound lofty, but then when others go low in search of division, lofty is the only place to escape to.
A Kind of People is on at Royal Court until 18th January. More info and tickets here