Chiaroscuro by Jackie Kay
Bush Theatre

Words by: Natasher Beecher | Published: Tuesday, September 10, 2019 9:41 AM

The Bush Theatre, located in an old and quite magnificently refurbished library in Shepherd’s Bush, is famous for giving space and support for new and emerging writers. So it surprised and delighted me to see that work by Jackie Kay – the National Poet for Scotland since 2016 – was headlining here. Now, I’ve also not been to many theatres set up completely in the round, with all four sides of the stage visible by the audience; so a reimagining of Kay’s 1986 Chiaroscuro, which promised to be an explosive gig-theatre event, felt like it would be well-suited to the space.

It unashamedly speaks the truth of black fear of lesbians, telling stories through a powerful and bold voice.

Before I see this play, I’m excited by the prospect of a bold exploration of the experiences of women of colour and female identities. These stories are rarely seen on stage, not least in the clearly emotive and frank manner that only Jackie Kay’s flow enables. Her penchant for well-crafted poetry is familiar to me, particularly as it usually explores her own loved experience of being ‘other’ in a few different ways, namely a lesbian and a woman of colour. Indeed, one of the first books I read as an out woman was a collection of poems, she penned in the 90s. Add to that artistic director Lynette Linton’s hand, and you get what should be an enjoyable piece of art.

This play speaks to everything I am. And so, it all feels personal, Kay’s words delivered and shining through, largely unchanged, raw and given justice. The cast is stunning – Shiloh Coke as Beth, a strong, slightly butch character that many would relate to. Preeya Kalidas commands the stage like a literal rock star, as her character is intended. Never have I seen such deep, flamboyant Nigerian character portrayed as by Gloria Onitiri, whose Yomi embodies the fears and prejudices of a generation so aptly. Anoushka Lucas though, arguably has the most complex of characters in Opal to play. She nails it, moving from irreverence to romance to mentally unstable all in the course of 90 minutes.

The four women collectively tell the same story but from the different perspectives of brown woman, black woman, gay woman, mixed heritage woman – and different personalities to boot since it’s not just about race. The script is funny in places, and to top it all off, it’s part musical. Not necessarily my cup of tea, but Shiloh Coke, who is also musical director and composer, does a solid job. As an ensemble, the women are beautifully pitch perfect. The styling of the costumes by award-winning Moi Tran is simple – perhaps a little too simple, even with the flourishes at the end.

The narrative itself is loose and abstract, which could be forgiven, considering it’s a play based on poetry, but a big failing is that I don’t connect with how the characters are performing in a band together.

As an ensemble, the women are beautifully pitch perfect.

There are lots of lesbian in-jokes, and black insights that perhaps a wider audience wouldn’t connect to. The play speaks to the way I felt coming out, and the abstract nature of the poetry is made up for, for me, by the power of delivering these insights. Not so much for my wife, who felt the story too jumbled.

All in all, this play in an interesting rendering of poetry, that’s very LGB inclusive and sheds much-needed light on the more marginalised. It unashamedly speaks the truth of black fear of lesbians, telling stories through a powerful and bold voice.

NEED TO KNOW: Chiaroscuro is at Bush Theatre until 5 October 2019 | book tickets | watch trailer | Chiaroscuro is the final edition in the Passing the Baton series, following he revivals of Winsome Pinnock’s Leave Taking and Caryl Phillips’ (read interview) Strange Fruit.

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