Shuck n Jive is played out on a traverse stage, designed by Ranya El Refaey, with props and artefacts hanging in marked out spaces on upright flats. In this production, the set is the prop table, the process of writing the play is the script, the actors play the writers, and the writers are trying to make a play.
This play is one that’s about theatre and race, and the way that the industry and the function of art is constantly failing at making itself better, safer, more equal. The play spends a lot of time, most of the play, examining itself. The structure is bound up in knots of art-making and identity:
What does it mean to write a play about race?
How do you make it have a meaning?
How do you make it ‘accessible’?
Can a play about race ever effect change?
Cassiopeia Berkeley-Agyepong and Simone Ibbett-Brown’s semi-autobiographical story follows two performers; Cassie (played by Tanisha Spring), a musical theatre actress, and Simone (played by Olivia Onyehara), a trained opera singer. These are women who are highly skilled and trained, in (semi) regular paid work, going for auditions and deciding they are tired, tired of being out of control of the stories in which they appear. This piece is the result of them writing their own stories for the first time.
It’s compelling and interesting to watch these two performers recreate the auditions that the writers of this show attended. They zoom in on the micro battles and negotiations that are carried out in pleasantries, and expose the hidden meanings of the songs they are asked to sing. The script has a bright humour and keen eye for idiosyncrasies of personality and power; the MD of the ‘urban musical interpretation of Hamlet’ is a particular highlight. Each of these 10-minute interactions tells you so much; it feels like a distilling of this bubble of the theatre industry.
These characters experience racism in in every corner of their lives, from the audition, to conversations with cast-mates, to interactions on the Central Line. They say at one point that they thought ‘it wouldn’t be like this in theatre’ which is such a damning indictment of the way this industry functions. A culture of personal recommendation or ‘going on instinct’ just leaves producers and directors vulnerable to their unconscious biases, and actors of colour constantly slighted.
The play’s sketch-like structure slips out of micro-realism and quickly into parodic metaphor. They sing minstrel songs wearing white gloves. The worst, most direct instances of racism are channelled into silly songs, including a violent man in a cafe delivering a fake-schmoozey rap. It keeps the audience safe but doesn’t let you forget the severity of the pain inflicted.
The whole piece is exciting, it’s playful, it’s also self-reflective to the point where you think ‘where could this possibly go?’
‘Is it a play when we’re just staging random conversations we’re having?’
‘It’s structureless, like this conversation.’
There isn’t a ‘resolution’ to the play. The narrative takes us through scratch night, writing, being offered a slot, but stops short of a ‘now we’re here!’ wrap-up monologue. A messy ending, it doesn’t offer answers or quick questions, but the whole piece is ambitious, original and playful.
Shuck n Jive is on at Soho Theatre till 26th October. More info here.