As I enter the dark space of The Bunker for new theatre festival This is Black, curated by director and writer Steven Kavuma (founder of the Diversity School, an initiative aiming to tackle the lack of diversity in drama schools across the UK), I am acutely aware of three things. The first is that I am one of around seven white people — and a white reviewer, more significantly — in the packed-out audience. This is a shamefully unusual experience. The second thing on my mind is that for the second time, I’m faced with the tricky — but hugely enjoyable — task of reviewing a double-bill of politically-charged theatre at the Bunker. The final thing is that Michaela Coel (writer and star of channel 4 comedy Chewing Gum), is sitting in the front row. I think to myself: this festival means business.
First up is PYNEAPPLE, written by Chantelle Alle and Melissa Saint. The piece, set in London hair salon Crowns, features four young black women grappling with the stereotypes and microaggressions they face while navigating their day-to-day lives. The audience is drawn into their world, as the close-knit group tackle everything from sexuality to colourism, fetishization to hair discrimination. The leaps between subjects occasionally feel on-the-nose, but the play intelligently tackles the intersectional nature of discrimination. Direction by Abigail Sewell brilliantly captures the safe, valued space of the salon, as well as highlighting a natural chemistry between the four performers that I suspect extends far beyond the stage. The characters are distinct, fun and truly a pleasure to watch on stage — I am particularly drawn in by the natural stage presence of Melissa Saint as Erycah. When the salon is threatened, it is asked, “do you know how many women depend on this shop?” — and I so desperately want to meet them. Although an obvious comparison to draw, PYNEAPPLE feels like the beginnings of a feminist Barbershop Chronicles, and I want to see more of these joyful, hilarious characters and their world beyond the shop. Nothing in the theatre has made me smile that much in a long, long time.
Next up is Teleportation, written by Ronkẹ Adekouẹj. This piece tells the story of Anuyin (Antonia Layiwola), a no-nonsense carer assigned to the difficult case of Gary (Lee Ravitz), a man isolated in his flat due to his disability. The pair are polar opposites and yet have so much in common, both ostracised from society for wildly different reasons. Despite the huge hurdle of Gary’s ingrained racism to overcome, and Anuyin’s lack of true understanding of what it means to be disabled, the pair form an unusual and moving alliance. Adekouẹj‘s writing is smart and always surprising with its small but significant twists and turns. Direction by Kavuma himself is delicate, wonderfully highlighting both the good and bad in these flawed characters. Because of this, the unexpected neutral ground the pair occupy becomes completely understandable. Teleporation presents difficult and at times heartbreaking material. As Gary says to Anuyin, “you shared what was for you, with me” — and this play shares with us an unusual story that I’ll be thinking about for a while.
This is a commendable double bill of unique new writing, part of a festival which I hope continues to grow. The sense of solidarity in the audience is palpable, and although this is not a space for me, I feel completely a part of it all the same.
PYNEAPPLE and Teleportation are playing The Bunker until 25 August as part of This Is Black Festival. For more information and tickets see the Bunker website.