by Suzan-Lori Parks
directed by Polly Findlay
Bridge Theatre – until 13 November
First seen off-Broadway at the highly prestigious Public Theater in 2019, this incendiary provocation of a play has likely grown in intensity and relevance in the intervening two years, with it’s mouthy, sardonic but clear-eyed take on modern race relations, and uncomfortable truths about toxic masculinity and bad sisterhood. It is also a remarkable example of the playwright having their metaphorical cake and eating it too, as it’s so rollickingly funny, for the most part, but when things get dark (and, blimey, do they get dark) it’s genuinely shocking and chilling.
Suzan-Lori Park’s slowburn, savage script disarms us at first with a warm, funny monologue for Leo (Ken Owusu, superb), a sweet, slightly fragile, young Black artist with a creative block, keen intelligence and a nice line in self-deprecating humour. We learn about his former relationship with Misha (Faith Omole) who is now with his long standing best friend Ralph (James Corrigan) who in turn is an old flame of Leo’s current partner, hot shot lawyer Dawn (Helena Wilson). It looks like we might be in for a spiky modern American comedy about a pair of interracial couples with a convoluted past.
Two things happen – one of which strains credulity a tad, the other one of which (Leo’s the victim of unprovoked, race-based police brutality) is sadly all too believable – which proceed to blow the whole status quo sky high, leaving the Black characters questioning their place in the world as well as the veracity and value of their relationships. Leo’s response to the attack (and the sole aspect of this otherwise magnificent play that I didn’t fully buy) is to initiate a forty day experiment where he acts as a “slave” to his white friend. If it doesn’t feel psychologically convincing that a highly educated, sensitive POC would react in such a way, the responses of the other characters (Faith Omole handles Misha’s outrage with particular brilliance) most certainly do, and the play becomes a scorching examination of the emotional and spiritual fallout.
The white characters start to display unedifying superiority tendencies, their latent prejudices laid bare, especially in Ralph’s case. Corrigan brilliantly charts his journey from puppyish if manic to terrifyingly calm, dead-eyed privilege. Parks gives each of the characters plenty of zest, substance and intriguing back story, much of which is only fully revealed in the beautifully crafted quartet of monologues studding the longer second half like little explosions of outrage and discomfort. All four actors deliver vivid, energised, technically flawless performances: they are a stellar team.
If Polly Findlay’s enthralling production occasionally feels compromised by being staged in a semi-traverse that exists mainly to represent the shooting range where some of the piece Is set, it moves from uproarious laughter to shocked, dazed silence in the blink of an eye, and moves at a hell of a pace.
Something with this much on it’s mind has no business being this entertaining, it makes the political deeply personal. Parks is a terrific writer and this is a cracking night out, one you’ll be thinking about and discussing long after the show. I loved it.