Tag Archives: Alisha Bailey

Raisin’ a Family


Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 22nd March, 2016


Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 is a landmark play, now a period piece, but with continuing resonance in our benighted age.

Amanda Stoodley’s detailed set (even the milk bottles are spot on) shows us the Chicago apartment of the Younger family.  As Ruth (Alisha Bailey) organises breakfast and gets the day started we meet the family members as they emerge to use the bathroom they share with others in the building.  Ruth’s young son Travis (in a performance by Solomon Gordon that easily matches his grown-up counterparts in terms of energy and high quality) is a good boy, despite the hardship he faces, and the attempts of his father to spoil him.  As Walter, the man of the house, Ashley Zhangazha has touches of Willy Loman but also Jimmy Porter – he’s an angry young black man, not angry because of racial oppression but because of his frustrated ambitions.  He has glimpsed the American Dream and he wants his slice of the pie.  His marriage is under great strain because of his aspirations.  There are poweful moments between Zhangazha and Bailey – we share Ruth’s frustrations with her husband’s fatal flaw: the belief that material gain leads to happiness.

Hope comes in the form of an insurance cheque that wings its way to Lena, the matriarch.  Ten thousand smackers that could change all of their lives.  Walter wants to invest in a business venture with his ne’er-do-well drinking buddies; his sister Beneatha (Susan Wokoma) needs money for medical school…   Meanwhile, Ruth discovers she is pregnant and doesn’t know if they can afford to keep the child…

And so there is plenty of conflict and strife in a domestic setting.  Director Dawn Walton doesn’t muck about.   She allows Hansberry’s play to speak for itself while enabling her excellent ensemble to deliver credible and powerful character work, handling the crescendos of the quarrels and the contrasts in tone in a way that upholds the naturalism of the piece.  Beneatha is the play’s social conscience, an independent thinker, progressive for her time and portrayed in a sparky and funny performance by Susan Wokoma.  Beneatha challenges the dominant ethos – leading to a smack in the chops from her mother – Angela Wynter’s Lena is the backbone of the family and of the piece.   You wouldn’t want to cross her but you respect and admire her without question.

So far, so Arthur Miller, so August Wilson.  But Hansberry gives us something else into the bargain.  Walter may be the Willy Loman, but the female characters are given equal time to air their opinions and grievances. Lena’s down payment on a new family home in a ‘better’ area leads to a visit from a mealy-mouthed representative of the housing association (Mike Burnside).  It becomes apparent that the Youngers are undesirables and unwelcome in his neighbourhood.  Having laughed with this family and felt with them through their trials, we are behind them all the way.  The racism shocks us – How could people think like that? – and then shocks us again: there are still idiots, we realise, with the same twisted views of their fellow humans.

Still a powerful piece, here expertly delivered without gimmicks or labouring the point, A Raisin in the Sun is bursting with humanity.  It’s emotive entertainment that still packs a punch.

A Raisin in the Sun 1400x700 1

Alisha Bailey and Ashley Zhangazha

Superior Soap

Errol John’s play from the 1950s deals with three households that share a yard in the less-than-wealthy side of Trinidad.  It begins with a song that sets the scene: a song about poverty and corruption everywhere, people are hungry when they should be angry – it’s an indirect commentary on the state of the UK under the present coalition government.  It is perhaps the only moment when the show has signs of contemporary relevance.  Having as much impact as an Ibsen play when it was first produced, Moon on a Rainbow Shawl suffers nowadays thanks to the prevalence of similar material widely available on the telly.  There is nothing that happens here that you can’t see in a soap opera any night of the week.

What counts then is the execution.  Director Michael Buffong allows his excellent cast time to let their characters breathe.  There is humour and conflict in the form of spats between neighbours but overall there is a leisurely pacing that allows us to savour the performances.  It reminds me of an August Wilson or an Arthur Miller – with a Caribbean flavour.

Martina Laird is powerful as matriarch Sophie Adams; hard-working and sardonic, she is ultimately a tragic figure as circumstances conspire to tear her little world apart.  Funny and formidable, Laird collapses into heart-rending distress as the lights go down.  It’s a superb performance.

She is supported by a likeable ensemble.  Tahirah Sharif is brimming with youthful vigour and youthful temperament as Sophie’s daughter Esther, whose scholarship to attend high school prompts her unemployed father (Jude Akuwudike) to take action that has devastating repercussions.  Neighbour Ephraim (an excellent Okezie Morro) seeks to improve his prospects by sailing off to a new life in England.  To do this he must abandon his up-the-duff girlfriend (Alisha Bailey) who is in turn fending off sexual harassment from her boss Old Mr Mack (Burt Caesar) who is also everyone’s landlord.  Old Mack is a bit of a slimeball and is held up for ridicule.  There is also comic relief from squawking whore Mavis (Bethan Mary James) and Prince, her suitor (Ray Emmet Brown)  Errol John allows Mavis a roundedness to her character.  Despite her loudness and carrying-on, she is that staple of drama and literature, a tart with a heart.

Soutra Gilmour’s detailed set and Steve Brown’s sound design give us a strong flavour of the location and the period.  We can imagine the world beyond the yard.  As with plays of this type, important events take place off-stage.  It’s an old-fashioned, well-made play made vibrant in a high quality, impassioned production.

The play suggests that wanting to better yourself comes at a terrible price, and you will invariably be worse off for trying – which is rather a dim view of the potential for social mobility – which is perhaps true of Britain today too…


Martina Laird