Writer and Director: Sabrina Richmond
“Black history is British history” one the characters explains in Sabrina Richmond’s new play A Black Story streamed via Vimeo as part of the Dazed New World Festival and performed live at Applecart Arts in East London. Fascinated by connections between groups of people, Richmond’s play explores family, cultural identity and different kinds of relationships across generations where individuals must face the truth to find a kind of peace.
At one end of the street a grandmother Katie and her adult grandson Moses revisit family secrets as Moses seeks to understand the life he wants for his own daughter. Next door, two step brothers Elton and Clement gather to write their broadcaster father’s obituary, having recently met for the first time while questioning their own affection for the dead man. In the final house, couple Cleo and Ryan, under quarantine, are frustrated by their inability to touch for two weeks.
Richmond’s play is simply staged with six socially distanced chairs spaced across the stage, lighting them in segments to highlight each pair as the audience is taken into the houses on the street. The whole stage is then illuminated for the parts of Richmond’s story that cut across the individual tales as the characters take their turn to reveal where they are most comfortable, key events and achievements in black British history since the 1950s and how they would define their own identity.
The most successful section is in the middle as brothers Elton and Clement navigate through their mutual discomfort as they forge a new bond following the death of their father. Describing their respective childhoods, their mothers’ experiences and mimicking their dad’s air guitar routine, moments of suspicion and regret mix with a mutual love of Elton John’s Sacrifice as the brothers, played by Chad-lee Brown and Patrick Bayele, move closer together.
The connection between Katie and Moses is less convincing when a grandmother reveals unprompted details of a passionate affair with a man who was not her husband. Although Richmond’s writing is filled with the intimacy of touch and chemistry, Vanessa White-Smith’s delivery is a little too passionless to convince which makes for a rather limp memory. Tats Ntazika fares better as a new father eager to understand what his daughter’s inheritance will be, but his lack of reaction or shock at his grandmother’s news and its occasionally graphic descriptions feels unlikely.
Cleo and Ryan seem most detached from the rest of the couples, purposefully in their own bubble but navigating towards a romantic story that begins with lustful descriptions of the government’s Covid sex advice and attempts to distract themselves. There is little chemistry between them but Ryan (Jonathan James) has an interesting moment when he vents his frustration at Cleo (Khadija Richmond) that for a second implies the story may go in another direction but it swings back sharply for some poetic, but not entirely convincing, declarations of love.
Some of the stage techniques get a bit lost on screen, so overlapping and forgotten lines early on just sound like actors starting their roles too soon and some kooky camerawork cuts to odd angles momentarily. Without the synopsis, this text doesn’t immediately suggest these characters are neighbours either as there are no physical references to place. But Richmond has a lot of complex strands in A Black Story that are ripe for expansion while successfully living up to Elton John’s lyric about “two hearts living / In two separate worlds”
Available here until 24 October