WALKING TO OBAMA
Reviewed By Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson
Tuesday, May 17, 2011.
Grant Buchanan Marshall is clearly an experienced and talented playwright with a skill for turning everyday conversation into clear and comedic dialogues. He often uses scalpel-sharp turns of phrase and an equally incisive appreciation for history. But this epic story of perseverance and resistance in the face of racism and discrimination in the American south is a missed opportunity for the writer and for Britain's leading Black theatre company Talawa .
With Talawa’s eagerly anticipated annual 'Flipping the Script' Series, there is undoubtedly a space for showcasing the efforts of young and not so young Black playwrights - cultivated in a professional environment. But it's glaring that of the three readings, two eschew the chance to address and dramatise our immediate milieu - Britain - and instead look towards global issues - and the third in the trio has a famous New York district in its title.
Now in its 25th year, Talawa is a veteran of Britain's thriving theatre landscape and this seasons readings are even dedicated to that quarter century of work. But Walking to Obama, Take Me to Manhattan and House of Zerquera - set in Cuba - suggest Talawa perhaps isn't that interested in stories of the Black experience in Britain. In fairness to the theatre group, each of the plays is directed by an emerging Young Vic trained Director - part of the theatre's collaboration with Talawa. Maybe that's where the future lies.
We know what we're getting with rehearsed readings and we accept the bargain - an opportunity to witness what theatre companies, directors and emerging writers are saying and doing. In some ways though it seems almost unfair to criticise such events in the same way that one would appraise a final product. Non glitzy affairs, the audience accepts the trade off between the discomfort of a hard backed chair in a Spartan environment where actors read directly from hand-held scripts, with minimal direction, stage design or sets. So these events provide as close as possible a chance to see a plays dry run.
Over 120 minutes Walking to Obama’s 5-person cast is really just a rehashing of stories of noble African Americans, clichéd racist villains and prison guards, a stereotypical wise matriarch and a fairytale style ending with a recitation of the 'A More Perfect Union' speech made by then Candidate Obama in the midst of the bitter 2008 Presidential nomination campaign.
The event took place in the Young Vic's bare-walled Clare Studios. With the ever dependable Chucky Venn leading, and Stephanie Yamson also a standout, the play was directed by Monique Sterling and supported by a nine-strong choir punctuating the two scenes with gospel songs and spirituals. But the predictable ending was already telegraphed with the play's title - that Obama's victory in 2008 concluded the civil rights era, bringing in a post racial utopia. However, it all became too much for this cynical writer when, at the play's denouement, a now lone singer with a flat toned vocal treated us to the chauvinist hymn 'America the Beautiful'…
Remember the unpleasant scenes of delirious Americans chanting 'USA, USA' in an atmosphere of rabid patriotism and the REM dream-like, comfort blanketed cosy warmth generated by the revenge-fulfilling assassination of Osama bin Laden? This was a restrained theatrical equivalent. All the more disturbing that it exploited the age old struggle against white supremacy and racism to perpetuate enduring 'home of the brave, land of the free' myths; together with the more recent but cynical Obama celebrity cult.
This type of thing may be fine in a United States seemingly entrapped in noxious self-delusion - but in more reserved and sceptical Britain. No thanks!
As a matter of fact, I would have been intrigued to see any one of the other works in progress by Buchanan Marshall - referred to in the Walking to Obama programme - Revolver, People's Home or Going Home.