Abuelo – The DOOR, Birmingham REP

Writer: Amahra Spence
Director: Daniel Bailey
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

Abuelo is Grandfather in Spanish and reflects the inspiration for the play, a highly personal exploration by writer and performer Amahra Spence. Spence’s grandfather is, she tellsus, a natural storyteller and she shares some of his stories in a rich Caribbean patois that is, for some audience members, almost impenetrable at times. He came from Jamaica to make a new life in the Black Country aged 16 (and never returned), married a local girl and had a family, became a gambler, womaniser and divorcé; but remains a giant figure in Spence’s life.

The programme tells us of a 20-something local black girl with an identity crisis who uses her time with her grandfather to help explore her heritage and find herself. We certainly see the bitter-sweetness of their relationship and learn something of Spence’s own tribulations in her life, including an early relationship gone bad from which she has emerged stronger and happier. However, what is less strong is the narrative of that journey to find herself, to resolve that identity crisis she reports. Onstage, we see a confident young woman, entirely comfortable in her own skin but the journey there isn’t as clear as it might be.

The set is simple but effective. Spence’s grandfather is a permanent looming but benevolent presence as his coat, tie and hat hang to one side, a simple but successful device. Other than that, a chair is used to vary the levels and a suitcase serves to remind us of the journey of the two protagonists. Occasionally, projections on to the floor are used, for example, of home movies of Spence as a girl with him. These help set moods but are not always easily watched because of the shallow angle from which the audience watches. The soundscape from Enrico Aurigemma supports the changing moods well.

Nevertheless, this is a charming and ultimately uplifting story despite its darker elements. Spence, like her grandfather, is a natural storyteller and, under the assured direction of Daniel Bailey, she manipulates emotions within the audience from laughs of recognition to moments of great stillness, silence and reflection. As an homage to her grandfather and an intensely personal narrative it undoubtedly works, but it doesn’t quite complete that which it sets out to do.

Abuelo was created thanks to the REP Foundry programme, an annual programme for emerging local theatremakers which supports artists for a year through workshops, making and sharing work – including in front of audiences – and professional mentoring; it was also supported by Talawa Theatre Company, the primary Black-led theatre company. It is undoubtedly a memorable evening and signposts a bright future for writer and performer Spence.

Runs until: 16 January 2016| Image: Graeme Braidwood

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