Shortlisted for the Alfred Fagon Award 2018 for Best New Play, Chinonyerem Odimba’s latest play for the Bristol Old Vic is set against the backdrop of the Bristol Bus Boycott in 1963, which drew national attention to racial discrimination in Britain. Arising from the refusal of the Bristol Omnibus Company to employ black or Asian bus crews, this city protest was vital to the black British Civil rights movement, but it seems to have been stitched back into the veil of the historical oversights of white hegemony. Odimba redresses and unveils this historical moment, placing it back into our centre of vision. With the help of community volunteers and professional actors, Bristol’s history is brought under the microscopic gaze of the stage, and the audience wrap around it, look backing in time from three sides.
This larger historical backdrop is anchored by the story of Phyllis Princess James (Kudzai Sitima), an effervescent and spritely ten-year-old who has big dreams of winning the Weston-Super-Mare beauty contest. In a flash of light and the flick of a curtain, the suitably drab 60s decor of the domestic setting is artfully illuminated in luscious pink and Hollywood mirror bulbs; under a sparkling disco ball, Princess dances us through her fantasy, no longer restricted by the girls at school who exclude her for the colour of her skin.
Back in the real world, we are taken through vignettes of Princess’ life alongside her hard-working but stubborn brother (Fode Simbo) and her stoic mother (Donna Berlin). Princess’ fantasies are punctured when their father, ‘The Hustler’ (Seun Shote), seeking employment and redemption, arrives with his wide-eyed and mixed-race daughter, Lorna (Emily Burnett). Old histories are exhumed and new tensions are formed; the personal and the political intertwine as this family fight with their new-found voices to be truly apart of their city.
At the start, the structural frame of a family drama as a way into a wider political moment feels at risk of appearing dated, heavy and laboured. At times, the pace of the production is slightly dragged by lengthy conversations and superfluous expository detail. However, the dynamism of the competent and convincing family ensemble pulls through these moments, letting the heart and soul of Odimba’s script to shine through, gaining strength as the story pushes to be a part of history.
Once the boycott is over, the battle is one and tensions resolve, we are brought back to the present day. We become spectators of a home-grown beauty pageant, made up of women from the local community and Eclipse Theatre Company: a national artistic beacon for black artists and theatre makers in the UK. We bask in their beaming smiles and glittering tiaras, victorious in beauty, voice and time.
Princess & The Hustler is playing at The Weston Studio until 23 February 2019. For more information and tickets, see the Bristol Old Vic website.