Take a Deep Breath and Breathe
In 2009, a group of Kenyan women organized a sex strike for a week in a bid to urge politicians to stop infighting and move the government forward. Bloggers, writers, and social commentators intensely debated whether this approach was antiquated and anti-feminist. Turn to London today and in Bola Agbaje’s latest play, she asks: can the rise or fall of a gang really be determined by what lies in between a woman’s legs? Her play is an urban political metaphor in exploring how young women withholding sex from rambunctious boyfriends can prevent them seeking to avenge their friend’s death following a brawl in a nightclub where a girlfriend was leered at by a rival gang member.
It is the journey of the charmingly naive Candy, girlfriend of Paul, that is chartered in this comical production with dark undertones on the conflicting, subverted messages injected into women’s psyche these days. Be independent, yet manipulate a guy: Hazel, the psychologist wannabe sister of Paul, who has a 15 month rule of abstinence before she will sleep with her boyfriend and even that depends on whether he has spent enough cash wining and dining her. A virgin can’t be sexy: Candy’s short skirt in the nightclub is what attracts attention and she is blamed for causing Donovan’s death. No-one ever thinks about whether her perpetrator needs to take responsibility for his actions.
A lively cast of emerging talent from the Ovalhouse Drama Company plays out the peer pressures, pop psychology on men and women with lines such as “unleash your inner Beyonce”, and how important Google is in informing their knowledge and experiences of sex.
The audience is seated in the action, lending to the intimacy and fractious nature of their relationships as the lighting sharply moves from one scene in a corner of the theatre to another. A lively cast of emerging talent from the Ovalhouse Drama Company plays out the peer pressures, pop psychology on men and women with lines such as “unleash your inner Beyonce”, and how important Google is in informing their knowledge and experiences of sex. Popular culture litters the vernacular of today’s young people: Illuminati, hashtag.com and it’s an evolving vernacular that mixes the old and the new. Hazel, for example, urges Candy to “follow the crumbs, Gretel” in realizing how powerful her virginity is to make Paul do what she wants. In reference to Hazel not giving up the coochie, her boyfriend, Charles, insists that he does not do “buy now, pay later. I’m all about direct debit”. The audience is seated in the action, lending to the intimacy and fractious nature of their relationships as the lighting sharply moves from one scene in a corner of the theatre to another.
Jamael Westman is an intense and angry Ryan, one of Paul’s friends, who urges him to “drop that bitch [Candy]” when he realizes his girlfriend, Natalie, is not having sex with him due to Candy’s advice. In a menacing scene where Ryan confronts Candy over her titillating nature, it feels like it is not quite written for everything it could be. So, is sexism really challenged within Agbaje’s work? The answer is no; it appears to be accepted as an endemic part of youth culture – corrosive as a bargaining commodity with horny young men. At times, Agbaje’s approach is heavy handed, such as Hazel’s advising Candy of the power in her sexuality, or the lack of it. Sexism is rampant, even today, but where it differs in history is its sophistication, explicit conversations, and blurring of boundaries. Consequently, it would be somewhat grand to expect Agbaje to give grand answers to its pernicious nature. And yet somehow the ending doesn’t feel full.