The 2000 iconic catchphrase Is it cos I is black? from Ali G. is not a line in Joe Penhall’s play Blue/Orange, revived now at the Young Vic in Southwark, London. But it could well be (I’ll be coming back to that). I did not see the original production in 2000 at the National Theatre as I could not afford the theatre ticket AND the train ticket down to London from Cambridge. This time I FLEW from Cork to London to see it, having received an email from one of my former A Level Drama and Theatre Studies students, Daniel Kaluuya, who has a role in it:
“Hey Miss, Long time no talk, been swamped with work so haven’t been able to reach out. I’m in another play, called Blue/Orange at the Young Vic. We open tomorrow, just thought I’d let you know and say I’d love you to come. Hope you’re well! Speak soon.”
I snapped up a flight, a hotel room and a preview ticket (he likes my feedback before press night) and found myself, last Wednesday evening, being marched by ushers through a simulation of a psychiatric hospital, over-lit and under-furnished, on my way through labyrinthine corridors, to my seat. Already disorientated, I was shocked to see ‘my boy’ had seemingly grown three inches upwards as well lost his cool: “Yeah yeah yeah yeah, makes me jumpy”.
In the play, Penhall discusses ideas of cultural imperialism and ethnocentricity – not only in the area of Shepherd’s Bush, where he lived, but also, specifically, in psychiatric hospitals. Christopher (Daniel Kaluuya), is the patient who has been sectioned for 28 days for doing ‘something funny’ in the market. His young psychiatrist, Bruce (Luke Norris) has diagnosed Borderline Personality Disorder but is now concerned that it is more serious: schizophrenia. The older consultant, Robert (David Haig) is called in to consider a longer stay in hospital. Much of the play revolves around their power struggle: the compassionate idealist versus the budget-conscious realist. Robert argues that, “Schizophrenia is the worst pariah … it isn’t newsworthy… it isn’t curable.” Bruce accuses his superior of racism because of Robert’s references to Christopher’s “people” and “community” and his statement “where he comes from” as if it were somewhere other than Shepherd’s Bush. Bruce probes: “But … you’re saying … what you’re really saying is Christopher’s … unable to distinguish between realistic and utterly unrealistic notions because … what…? Because he’s black?” Is it cos he is black?
There is a serious issue about BAME patients in mental health care. Only the other day Jacqui Dyer and Patrick Vernon wrote an article in the Guardian entitled How Can Mental Health Services deliver better care for black patients? But my concern goes far beyond this in terms of racism. I see it all around me. When I got off the plane in Cork, having seen Daniel in the play, I spotted that the drivers of the two cabs at the front of the queue at the airport were black. Customers in front of me bypassed these cabs and got into the third and fourth in the queue, which were driven by white men. Why would they do that? Why would the white drivers allow queue-jumping? Is it cos they is black?
Furthermore, in spite of his determination to air the issue, Penhall opens himself to challenge. Why are two out of three of his characters white? Why do they have more lines than the black character? In this production why is the black character subjected to on-stage incarceration in a subterranean moat (like the one at the Zoological Society of London’s Whipsnade) even when he is supposed to be off-stage?
OK. The white doctors are educated and articulate and Christopher is not. He is poor and lonely and impotent in society. But Penhall gives Christopher lines which made me uneasy. His references to drugs and Red Stripe beer are jokingly directed at his doctors’ stereotypical views, but nonetheless, they are written for delivery. His verbal tics “know what I mean?” and “innit” are uncut so that he seems unable to express himself precisely. Matthew Xia directs him to pace the stage crabwise as if he were one of Whipsnade’s caged chimpanzees peering out at spectators – as often as not he was actually clasping an orange! I wanted to heckle or walk out in protest. For me there is something implicitly racist in the conception of the play and in this production. If I were Xia I would have asked Penhall for some rewrites (the play is too long anyway) and I would have worked against any possibility of a racist presentation of the black character. The writer and the director are, in my view, culpable, at the very least, of insensitivity and, possibly, of something much worse.
But having recently seen Undercover, a series about a black family, written by Peter Moffat, I wonder how authentic any black character can be when written by a white writer. And I also wonder what it’s like for Daniel to play a black man written by a white man? I did not ask him. Instead I take comfort in the fact that he is writing himself – he was even writing scripts for Skins when I was teaching him – and I hope that he will write more credible black characters.
What I did say to him, when he rushed out – still only 5’10” – after the show was “Are you going to be all right playing that character?” I was worried about the mental, emotional and physical strain on him, night after night. “He’s psychotic!” I said. Daniel merely smiled and said he’d “zen it out” and patted me gently on the shoulder – so he’s still cool too. “Don’t worry miss. Thanks for coming, it means a truckload to me!”
As to Daniel’s performance, you only need to look at the images and the reviews. Here is the final paragraph of Dominic Cavendish’s review in The Telegraph: “The laurels go, though, to Daniel Kaluuya, as the piggy-in-the-middle of their tug of war; by turns slouching, casual, charismatic, erratic, vulnerable, fierce, propelled out of his wits by their wrangling, he dances on the border between the bloke next door and the psycho you’d cross the street to avoid. He’s a mind-game played on our own perceptions and prejudices. My prognosis: unmissable.”
That’s my boy. Or is it cos he is black?
Don’t miss the link on my afterword! Is it cos he is black?