Daniel Nelson

The Gift

The Gift

Image by The Gift

A protégé of Queen Victoria, Sarah Bonetta Davies – look her up on Blackhistory 365 or Wikipedia – is training a nervous African maid on the finer points of etiquette before they leave for Sierra Leone.

In contemporary Cheshire, a culturally white black couple from Chelsea – one of whom is also named Sarah - receive a visit from their white neighbours who have a confession.

On a return visit to Britain, the princess, goaded by a manifestation of the other Sarah, tries to tell Queen Victoria about the problems she is experiencing in west Africa.

That’s the intriguing set-up in Janice Okoh’s three-act play, The Gift, which is billed as “an outrageous play about imperialism, cross-racial adoption, cultural appropriation … and tea.”

The play is more complicated and more fun than my brief outline suggests (Cheshire Sarah, for example, rails against an assignment to Nigeria and is the mother of s a privately adopted white baby), but its impact is uneven.

Act One’s subtle inversion of expectations is entertaining but a little slow. Act Two offers a sudden change of scene but its own inversion of expectations seems mired in a conventional theatrical living room confrontation until Okoh’s writing lifts it to another level, and the audience’s Act One titters are replaced by heartier laughs, fuelled by recognition of everyday attitudes, occasionally tinged by nervous embarrassment. Act Three changes the mood to deadly seriousness: it starts as an ordinary reunion between Queen and adopted Princess (“a present from the King of the Blacks to the Queen of the Whites”, says one account at the time) but quickly heads for the rapids as the underlying racism of Britain’s ruler (and Britain) is revealed.

It’s clever and hard-hitting: it spears racism and its message is that racism is deeply ingrained and can’t be parlayed with. Africans are equal and need to assert that truth in their dealings with those who seek to repress them. Smite the monster. It’s extraordinary how such an obvious statement still sounds radical.

* Director Dawn Walton was the founder, former artistic director and head of Eclipse Theatre, “creating two major movements: Revolution Mix, which is delivering the largest ever national delivery of new Black British productions in theatre, film and radio, and Slate: Black. Arts. World. Supporting over 2,000 Black artists in the North.” 

* The Gift, E15, is at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, Gerry Raffles Square, Stratford, London E15 1BNuntil 15 February. Info: 8534 0310/ http://www.stratfordeast.com/

+ The African princess: Sarah Forbes Bonetta.

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry Sat 18 - Sat 25 Jan

 

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