Lynette Linton revives Jackie Kay’s 1980s play, Chiaroscuro, which explores the interconnected narratives of four young black and brown women.
In her debut production as the Bush Theatre’s artistic director, Lynette Linton revives Jackie Kay’s Chiaroscuro, a play whose concerns are certainly of 1986, yet, unfortunately, don’t feel entirely foreign in 2019. This is the narrative of four young black and brown women, crafted around a series of jam sessions that crescendo in a rousing musical finale.
In Chiaroscuro, Beth, Opal, Yomi and Aisha grapple with their identities as individuals, in relation to one another and the societies that constrict their full existences; for all four women, these identities are firmly rooted in their heritage and sexuality and symbolised in the play by their respective connections to a photo album, a mirror, a doll and a cushion.
When Opal, a nurse – played by Anoushka Lucas with a quiet intensity – meets Beth, a social worker, the subsequent relationship that blossoms from their initial meeting is both empowering and petrifying (for Opal particularly). While Beth is (at least initially) outwardly confident and self-assured, Opal’s uncertain parentage and experiences with the UK care system have left her fragile, insecure in love and self-destructive. The duologues between Beth and Opal are the most effective and exquisitely drawn. Both actors play well against each other, performing an intimacy that is broken but beautiful. Shiloh Coke, as Beth and musical director, is by far the stand-out of this production. Her voice is clear and evocative and she delivers her humorous lines with a dryness that feels particularly “London”, eliciting full belly laughs from her audiences with ease.
Both women are friends with Aisha, a carpenter and lead singer of the band – and Yomi by association – though Yomi’s relationships with the other women never really make sense, particularly when she obtusely insists on calling Opal ‘half-caste’ and denounces lesbianism as ‘unnatural’ (to be Black and queer is fantastical to Yomi) at what is supposed to be a relaxed girls night in. In the unpacking of this, there is an underlying narrative about internalised prejudice and complicity in silence which is interesting and could have been more fully realised. Aisha and Yomi’s relationship, and their interactions with the others, are the points of the play that most left me wanting. These characters are well acted by Preeya Kalidas and Gloria Onitiri but perhaps Kay’s dedication to gorgeous language supersedes the transparency of their distinct narratives; their motivations are not always clear to the audience. Though a huge fan of musical theatre, not all of the songs in this piece fit seamlessly into the narrative and I found many of them sharply drew me out of the emotional intensity the acting and language had so effectively created.
Though the ending – a musical prayer and rallying cry – is electrifying and cathartic, the play does not quite live up to the subtle interplay of light and dark that the title evokes.
Chiaroscuro will be shown at the Bush Theatre until 5th October. Click here for more information and to book tickets.