Writer: Chinonyerem Odimba
Director: Dawn Walton
Designer: Simon Kenny
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Mention the phrase “bus boycott” and the mind turns immediately to Montgomery, Alabama. The Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963 is a largely forgotten milestone in race relations in this country. The cause of the boycott was a refusal by Bristol’s bus company to employ black or Asian bus crews.
Eclipse Theatre Company, co-producers of Princess and the Hustler with Bristol Old Vic and Hull Truck, is mounting a series of productions of Black British Stories, but the inspiring story of the successful bus boycott is rather obscured in Chinonyerem Odimba’s ingenious, warm-hearted, thought-provoking, but rather unfocused, play.
The main narrative thrust is domestic. The “Princess” of the title is 10-year-old Phyllis, her heart set on winning a beauty contest at Weston-super-Mare. Her fantasy proves to be an attempt to escape the racist bullying she experiences at school. Her estranged father Wendell, the “Hustler” of the title, returns unexpectedly from Liverpool at Christmas, with a mixed-race daughter from another relationship. Princess who never knew him before welcomes him; the same cannot be said of her mother, Mavis, and her older sibling, Wendell Junior. They remember when he walked out on them one night.
The bus boycott bursts into this complex family drama as, firstly, an attempt at redemption by The Hustler. Is he taking something seriously for once? At the same time, it exposes the racism that Mavis has tried to protect her children from. Junior is beaten up by a group of white yobs; Mavis’ white friend, Margot, speaks out as a supporter of the white bus crews whose racism chimes with their wish to protect their overtime.
Dawn Walton’s direction is fluid, bringing out the many contrasts within the play, from sweetly comical to aggressively raw, with a fine sense of detail, especially in the generational differences, in dress and accent as much as with attitude.
Kudzai Sitima is an instantly appealing Princess, believable in her fantasy acceptance speech and her alternate larks and sulks and successful in negotiating the tricky move into deeper emotional territory. Lorna, her half-sister, gets a perfectly judged performance from Emily Burnett, though, as with several characters, the text hints at her frustrations without pursuing them.
One of Odimba’s great skills is to make flawed characters likeable – and this is helped by Walton’s ability to get vivid and authentic performances from her cast. It is impossible to dislike Seun Shote’s Wendell the Hustler, always unpredictable, but constantly seeking to reassure everyone of his good intentions. Mavis has the sense of responsibility he lacks, and Donna Berlin brings out the full emotional range, from fun to hints of violence. Both have telling monologues establishing their back-stories, speaking for the Windrush generation who were invited here, but then not accepted.
An excellent cast is completed by Fode Simbo’s understated and totally convincing Junior, Jade Yourell as an entertaining, but rather sad, Margot, fighting the years and her own prejudices, and Romayne Andrews as Junior’s self-effacing friend Leon.
Simon Kenny sets it in a comfortably modest living room, with occasional ventures elsewhere, most colourfully into Princess’s fantasy land.
Touring nationwide | Image: Contributed