Caryl Phillip’s Strange Fruit is a story of anxiety interwoven with anger – a domestic tightrope where language fails to bridge the gap between generations, writes our arts contributor Yosola Olorunshola.
The atmosphere in Strange Fruit is severe. Performed in the round, the stage is wide but minimal. A large, slightly sunken square dominates the space, carpeted – a rare visual cue that this bare enclosure is in fact a home. The same shape could belong to a boxing ring, a pit, or even a cage, visual echoes that threaten any sense of easy domesticity.
Nancy Medina’s spare staging is unobtrusive, but shapes the intensity of the production. We meet the characters on the raised edges of this pit, and the play never loses the sense of precarity this creates. Every character is on edge. The unnamed ‘inner-city’ context in which they exist leaves them inside but on the edges of society, almost submerged. The occasional photo frame rests against a pillar, but provides little solace to soften the raw edges of the family’s confusion.
Set in the 1980s, the story of Vivian and her two sons (Errol and Alvin) is played out in this strange, strained atmosphere. A polished performance from Rakie Ayola captures the fragile and anxious elegance of Vivian, a mother who seems fixated on keeping up with appearances. A Windrush generation teacher, Vivian seems to have internalised the keep calm and carry on maxim of the Mother Country to the point that her fellow immigrant neighbour Vernice warns her to remember she is “coloured”.
By contrast, her son Errol is a militant activist, determined to fight in a “world of reality and brutality.” He spends his days agitating with his peers and dreaming of a black utopia, yet there is something paranoid and self-negating about his politics. Shelley, his haplessly steadfast white girlfriend, is a source of endless frustration to him, and the emotional manipulation he spins traps them in a cruel and futile dynamic.
Jonathan Ajayi’s performance as the tortured Errol is captivating as he clashes with both his mother and Shelley throughout the first act. His deteriorating mental health begins to manifest physically, fighting himself and anyone who dares approach him in his sinking home. The space is used powerfully as dialogue takes place across the distance of the pit – disconnection and dislocation are the order of the day.
The delicate soundtrack crafted by Xana – the distant sound of steelpans, the flutter of beaded curtains, occasional birdsong – is haunting. Anchored in 1980s England with echoes of the Caribbean, the sense of place is carefully unsettled. But despite the artful staging and the choreography of the action, the play exists on one plane for too long. The tone rarely shifts from paranoia, verging on rage and despair. This may be its power, but Medina could have made more of the wit in Errol’s dialogue to add a different texture to the mood. Appearances from Vernice (Debra Michaels) interrupt the rising feud between Errol and his mother, but despite her neighbourly chatter, the atmosphere remains cool at best.
While this cold tension weighs down the first portion of the play, the arrival of Alvin in the second act brings a new wave of energy and the play’s real force. Tok Stephens’ performance unleashes more subtle emotions trapped beneath anger and resentment. Freshly returned from his grandfather’s funeral in Jamaica, Alvin forces Vivian to confront her sons’ disconnection with their roots. The damage caused by her decades-long silence tears through what is left of their fragile relationship. Here, the unflinching weight of the first act begins to feel worthwhile as the audience recognises the slow accumulation of pain and betrayal that each character, in their own way, has tried and failed to resist.
Strange Fruit is on at the Bush Theatre until 27th July. For more information and to book tickets, click here.