‘Freedom, courage, and persistence’: central to the American Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s, these currents also coursed strongly through the new arrival of It is So Ordered at the Pleasance Theatre.
Developed in partnership with Old Vic New Voices and Park Theatre, Conor Carroll creates an angry depiction of racial injustice and a corrupt American justice system in this fiery two-hander, brought to life by director Lucy Curtis.
The Harlem Race Riots of 1964 loom as we are introduced to a youthful Johnny (Simon Mokhele) and Bobby (Faaiz Mbeliz). The pair are initially occupied by trivial worries such as youthful infatuation and school yard fights; yet this childlike gaiety is brought abruptly to an end as people take to the streets to riot against the racially motivated murder of an innocent man by the police.
During these events, a shopkeeper is shot. Under police duress, Bobby is pressured to accuse Johnny of the murder in spite of his innocence, earning him the death penalty. What ensues are decades of captivity for both men; neither are free, as Johnny remains in physical captivity and Bobby, whilst seemingly free, is held hostage by his guilt.
It is a fast-paced piece driven by the unrelenting energy of Mbeliz and Mokhele who dart back and forth across the small traverse stage. Every aspect of the production seems to cleverly suggest well-considered thematic points. One example of this was the use of white chalk on the black stage; such a jarring contrast acted as a mirror of the stark political differences between black and white at the time. Reminiscent of childhood games initially, the chalk scribbles on the stage grew more sinister as it was used to outline a shirt placed on the floor signifying the shopkeeper’s death.
Often the most powerful moments of the production were those indicated by a light change, flooding the stage with an orange glow as the two men sang ‘Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around’, dragging their feet with a solemn trudge under the weight of wooden crates held on their shoulders. This gospel song, long predating the ‘64 riots, highlights the trans-historical nature of black oppression, and how music has been a perennial tool in the black freedom struggle.
Mbeliz and Mokhele were both consistently engaging; however, the piece may have benefitted from slowing down the pace fractionally in places, as lines were often delivered with such rapidity it took a while to understand what was taking place. And significant moments such as the riots were not hugely differentiated from more inconsequential scenes.
There is much to commend in this production: it was haunting, powerful, and frighteningly pertinent to the world today.
It Is So Ordered is playing at the Pleasance Theatre until 16 April.