Writer: Devin Tupper
Director: Coral Tarran
In a summer where statues were toppled and anti-racism protestors took to the streets, debating whether an artist and their work can ever truly be separated feels increasingly important. H.P. Lovecraft was a prolific and ground-breaking horror-writer, but one now known to have held uncomfortable views. Winner of the 2020 London Lovecraft New Writing Competition, Devin Tupper wonders if his inspiration should continue to be celebrated in The Racist in the Chat.
Sydney is mediating a debate between academic Julia and writer Parker on whether an American literary prize for fantasy stories should retain H.P. Lovecraft’s name. United by teleconference to debate the personal and professional influence of this famous figure, a series of bizarre happenings interrupt their discussion while their own impassioned views drive them off course.
Presented as a rehearsed reading by the Thornhill Theatre Space and Vulcanello Productions directed by Coral Tarran, technical difficulties prevented the scheduled Facebook live stream resulting in a pre-recorded rehearsal version being posted on YouTube in its place. Filmed in Zoom boxes with a mix of read and acted performances, Tupper’s play actually feels better suited to the stage.
Across five scenes, these characters discuss Lovecraft’s work and legacy; Julia is the greatest advocate for the man, opening her defence with an impassioned plea that Lovecraft was merely a man of his time; Parker, by contrast, analyses his writing, coming to the conclusion that his style is overrated and miscategorised, while long-silent Sydney tries to arbitrate before finally contributing his own perspective.
There are a lot of overlapping themes in Tuppin’s play that ask significant questions about the relationship between historic and contemporary experiences of racism, the varying agenda-pushing of the academic and author communities of which these characters are representatives, and the ways in which authorship can have a personally polluting effect on the reader.
The exigencies of social distancing makes this a video call production, and The Racist in the Chat is still in the early stages of performance. But there is an aspect in the writing which builds tension between the characters that is entirely designed for the stage, their disagreements and chemistry raising the temperature of the room, preferably the same room. With tones of Annie Baker’s work including The Antipodes and John, this will work best as a locked room drama where the individual, national and historical intricately co-exist.
The spookier elements of the show are interesting. The unseen hand of the mysterious ‘HP’ assumed to be a hacker is a useful frame and utilised in this version to show Lovecraft’s own dissent. It is presented as painfully loud high-pitched interference and fuzzy visuals that anticipate several scene breaks, but as a driver it feels a little superfluous on screen, although (again) on stage with lighting and soundscaping the supernatural angle would be stronger and arguably more disconcerting.
Read by Natalie Morgan, Paris Rivers and Cathy Conneff, The Racist in the Chat at around 80-minutes takes a little while to coalesce and Julie’s long speech towards the start is heavily weighted with Lovecraft’s biography that interrupts the flow, although the reading hits its stride as the more intricate debates begin. Winning the Lovecraft prize with a meta-analysis of the writer’s impact and views is an interesting direction for the competition but it is one that suits our contemplative mood as we consider where art and personality really intersect.