Strange Fruit by Caryll Phillips
Having just finished a very exhausting theatre process – I was super excited when my mentor kindly invited me to see Strange Fruit.
The 3hour play centres around a Mother from the islands that came to London, England in the eighties to start a new life with her two young sons Alvin and Errol.
Alvin and Errol, now in their twenties are searching for their identity, and Alvin – during the first half of the play has travelled back home, as a representative for their family, at his grandfathers funeral. Errol stays behind in London and is working hard to encourage ‘his people’ to strike from work in a time of supreme racial tension.
So that’s the brief premise.
First half and Errol
I struggled with both. And I say this with the up most respect for the hard work of all involved.
Life after my performance of J’ouvert– where I had 5 days of rehearsal before having to be in my underwear, script in hand… in front of an audience, on stage - really has transformed how I assess productions! The process can be extremely brutal, and as an actor you are so vulnerable… so I totally get it!
And so as a disclaimer, having no idea of the actual process, I review this having just watched one performance and no further details.
I struggled primarily with Errol’s character, one of the main characters and the youngest brother aged 21 – the one with his hair in dreadlocks and played by Jonathan Ajayi.
Now, I’ve seen Ajayi in different productions and am a fan of his acting, this history made me really dig deep and question why I was just not warming to his character… so I sat there watching Errol, and in the days after, confronted my feelings of anger, un-comfortableness and the inner ridicule happening internally.
I watched – as Errol spoke and dealt with his mother (his only living parent) too aggressively than the cultural norm.
I watched as he got too close for comfort and at one point I feared he might strike her.
Why so much hate?
Notably, the Black females at the end of my row sniggered several times awkwardly, and whispered to each other as Errol completely overlooked, disrespected and dismissed his white girlfriend, that now stood on stage. A Strange Fruit indeed, but I enjoyed watching Tilly Steele’s (the actress that played her) interpretation of a docile, working class, eighties British girl – whose act of rebellion is to date Black.
Side note – now If I’m honest I think my focus was pulled to Errol – because he was a central character but also because the portrayal of a toxic, aggressive Black male, WITH DREADLOCKS [Check out my 10 and a half loc journey]was overbearing – and as he man handled his girlfriend and poked fun at her simple-ness I sank in my seat.
Further side note… now this family’s story is very much a piece of my own history and so the desire for it to be right is strong. Without sounding like I’m obsessed with how other people view my culture, or that I am just wanting positive representation of my heritage I will say in terms of a play (and indeed life) people are constantly shifting and changing.
Further to this – the idea of a bad, Caliban like, Black man is getting boring and not very accurate.
Without exposing too much of my family history I have experienced domestic violence more than I wish to share, but first hand. In the late eighties in particular, it was a different time from now - and I know plenty of dreadlocked, island men who would beat their women. So I’m aware of reality. However, because I know them - I also know how charming and attractive they are initially, and this certainly was not the case for Errol.
I have no idea why his girlfriend was with him, as simple as she was, she wasn’t stupid and she had the backing of many members of her community, at this time not to be. As well as any absence of fear from Errol of the reprocussions of harming a white woman. A fear that still exits in interacial relationshps today!
Also, these men that I know... the ones Errol's character attempted to reflect, have a fantastic relationship with their mother. And in general, there usually tends to be (on stage and on earth) some niceties within the most evil of humans.
Second half and Alvin
It was not just Errol but all of the characters that, I felt, didn’t go on much of a journey/ shift or change. The mother – whose life Strange Fruit actually centres around – has the most clear character journey, played by Rakie Ayola– however, I don’t think this was intentional.
The second half helped and I’m glad I stayed.
Notably - the Black women mentioned earlier were gone. I got to see the Mother, who started as what we would call a ‘heighty-tighty’ Caribbean woman, lose her height and loosen from her stush-ness to face her very dark reality.
Alvin’s return also offered some depth as he realises that London IS his home, when relatives from the island reject him.
But Errol… remains hateful. And after learning he is going to be a father changes his location but not his attitude. He continues to berate his pregnant girlfriend, despite her decision to go with him to Africa.
Ironically – the mother and girlfriend’s conversation towards the end was a beautiful snapshot of the different attitudes towards success. In a reflective reversal of attitudes expected of the time it is the older, black mother who has chosen independance to her detriment. And the younger white girlfriend who has chosen to stick with a man whose love is questionable to raise their child.
Interestingly enough, neither the director – Nancy Medina or Jonathan Ajayi are of Caribbean decent. And that outside perspective of Black Caribbean British life in the eighties sacrificed inner details, nuances and perspectives that caused me to see distinctly their Strange Fruit indeed!
Let me know what you think.
Strange Fruit at the Bush Theatre until 27thJuly