Last Updated on 18th June 2019
Mark Ludmon reviews Caryl Phillips’s Strange Fruit now playing at the Bush Theatre in a production directed by Nancy Medina.
Bush Theatre, London
A year ago, the Bush Theatre gave us a fine revival of Winsome Pinnock’s phenomenal 1987 play Leave Taking exploring the experiences of two generations of a London family of Caribbean heritage. Part of an occasional series dubbed “Passing the Baton” celebrating works by British playwrights of colour, this has been followed up by a revival of another play, Caryl Phillips’s Strange Fruit which premiered in 1980. It also looks at inter-generational conflict in a black British family uprooted from the Caribbean but, despite flashes of brilliance, it overall lacks the impact that its subject matter demands.
The title recalls Billie Holiday’s hit song about lynching in America’s Deep South which saw thousands of black Americans brutally murdered until as recently as the 1960s. This story is set in England (presumably London, judging by the accents) but reveals the impact of racism and discrimination on the lives of Vivian and her two sons, Errol and Alvin, who left the West Indies 19 years earlier. The two boys, now grown-up, have responded by becoming radicalised while their mother doggedly avoids confronting the reality of her life as a black woman in 1970s Britain. Next door, her best friend Vernice has her own problems with teenage daughter Charmaine who has mysteriously stopped talking to her.
Communication is at the heart of the play. In one of the most powerful scenes, Vivian movingly reveals her own experience of racism in England – something she has never wanted to speak about to her children. Her refusal to talk about the past means her sons have no idea what she has endured and how “sick and tired” she feels, but equally she has no understanding of the frustration that they feel. Played with docile reserve by Rakie Ayala, she starts to show the cracks as her strategy of silence turns out to be misjudged.
With a badly cut Afro, Jonathan Ajayi veers from softly spoken to violent rage as 21-year-old Errol, trying to navigate his way through conflicting feelings about his identity and living in a country where he is at constant risk of attack because of his race. Tilly Steele is excellent as his younger white girlfriend, Shelley, broken by her own difficult family life and willing to cross oceans out of her love for him. Debra Michaels is also memorable as the nosy but supportive Vernice, injecting some lovely moments of comedy. Tok Stephen stands out in a brilliant performance as the older brother, Alvin, who is forced to come to terms with his own broken hopes and dreams.
Directed by Nancy Medina, this is a strong revival of a play that could have benefited from a tighter structure – it runs for three hours including interval. Designed by Max Johns, it has a minimal set, fully covered with a 1970s-style textured deep-pile carpet that conjures up Vivian’s living room where all the action takes place. (Johns has also created a more realistic version of a British West Indian front room in the Bush Theatre’s foyer.) With its unforgettable characters and moments of emotional power, Strange Fruit is never dull, pulling us along with its steady unravelling of the secrets and lies that people rely on to survive.
Running to 27 July 2019