Tag Archives: Dawn Walton

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.

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Alisha Bailey and Ashley Zhangazha

Monkey Business


Derby Theatre, Wednesday 20th February, 2013


Eclipse Theatre Company bring us this revival of Don Evans’s 1982 play of social and sexual mores among the black community in Philadelphia, in this celebratory and exuberant production.

The set is very TV-like, split in two – and it soon becomes clear why.  The show is framed like the recording of a situation comedy in the 1970s.  Large red ON AIR signs hang above the scene.  The cast parade on before the action begins to ‘meet’ the audience.  There is canned laughter and applause.  The costumes are a riot of 1970s gaudiness, clearly connoting the comic stereotypes we will encounter as the plot unfolds.  Libby Watson’s designs are a joy.

Dawn Walton directs the cast within this heightened world of old-fashioned TV comedy.  We are quite accustomed to this retro-feel, thanks to currently popular shows Miranda and Mrs Brown’s Boys.  The comic timing, the reactions, are superbly done.  There are the occasional moments when the blocking is a little off, with actors masking each other in the crowded living-room set, but I suspect this might be part of the aesthetic, reminding us we are supposed to be the fourth wall in a TV studio rather than a theatre.  I’m prepared to give the benefit of the doubt.

The plot involves the arrival of country cousin Beverly into the home of socially pretentious Myra and her preacher husband Avery.  Their teenage son may or may not have impregnated his less affluent girlfriend, Li’l Bits.  Beverly has inherited a share in a jazz club run by Caleb, who is now her legal guardian.  It’s the basic shenanigans of sitcom and farce.

The scenes are separated by individual characters coming to the fore and performing monologues, commenting on the action and wider society in general.  This is where Evans makes most of his overt points about his ‘message’.  I found these speeches, however well-performed, slowed down the action and the gathering momentum – I wanted to see the pay-off when sexually-frustrated Myra and Avery experiment with pages from The Joy of Sex.  The comic playing of these two especially is top notch.  But then it occurred to me, it is precisely because they slow the plot down that Evans includes them.  We are NOT watching a fluffy piece of silliness.  He makes us pause and listen as the characters present themselves in more-rounded terms than the stereotypes the action requires them to be.  The message seems to be a moral one.  There is much to do with snobbery, and more to do with double standards for men and women, especially concerned with sexual matters.  At the end, when two of the three couples are neatly brought together in convenient sit-com resolution, the third – Caleb and Beverly – the road ahead is not going to be as easy.  Beverly asserts herself and makes it clear she’s not going to be walked over.  Caleb, bent but not broken, looks forward to navigating this new path, while holding onto as much of his pride and saving as much of his face as he can.  Evans points the way forward and suddenly, this decades-old play, this nostalgic bit of fun, is wholly contemporary and pertinent.

As Myra, Jocelyn Jee Eslin is superb, with her malapropisms, her pretentions and her ridiculous attempts at poise.  Karl Collins as frustrated preacher Avery is her match.  There is some lovely physical comedy from both of these and some perfectly executed reactions.  Rochelle Rose’s Li’l Bits is proud and beautiful in her enormous afro – I couldn’t help thinking of Foxy Cleopatra from Austin Powers – and I really enjoyed Jacqueline Boatswain in both of her contrasting character parts, as Mozelle the sassy beautician and the energetic Mrs Caldwell.  Rebecca Scoggs’s Beverly, the voice of reason for the most part, is a little too quiet in some scenes, I found, but there are some delightful moments with her and Clifford Samuel’s cocky Caleb, as their relationship shifts and changes, and they develop an understanding.  Isaac Ssebandeke is energetic as ‘preppy’ son Felix, trying to cope with his awakening sexuality, and the entire company is superb when reacting in unison to the surprises the plot contrives to throw at them.

It’s a very funny piece, a comedy of manners seen through the prism of the tropes of television sitcom.  It’s The Cosby Show (or even The Fosters – for those of you elderly enough to remember that one!) with a social conscience.  It’s not just about representing certain aspects of society and displaying their concerns and issues.  With Don Evans, it’s about telling them something as well.


Isaac Ssebandeke (Felix) and Myra (Jocelyn Jee Eslen) contemplate The Joy of Sex.

Isaac Ssebandeke (Felix) and Myra (Jocelyn Jee Eslen) contemplate The Joy of Sex.