Writer: Janice Okoh
Director: Dawn Walton
In 1848, Omoba Aina, a Yoruba Princess, was about five. Her village was attacked and she was taken into slavery by the victorious Dahomeyans. Captain Frederick E Forbes of the Royal Navy convinced the king to give her as a gift to Queen Victoria. Intrigued by her intelligence, the queen took her in as her goddaughter and, now renamed Sarah Forbes Bonetta, she was raised in the British middle classes. She subsequently married Captain Davies, a Yoruba businessman and for a time they lived in Brighton before returning to Africa and pioneering the farming of cocoa.
In The Gift, writer Janice Okoh and Eclipse Theatre have imagined Sarah shortly before her return to Africa. She is the lady of the house, looking to do good works teaching etiquette to African girls, with her first pupil being Aggie, her maid and cook, in hosting a tea party. Sarah and her husband receive visitors, one of whom, Mrs Harriet Waller, has promised to invest in his next farming venture, that of farming palm oil for soap. The scene pokes fun at some sharply observed caricatures – Donna Berlin brings a brilliant physicality to Aggie as she struggles to take in her lessons in etiquette, while Joanna Brookes’ Harriet Waller is overbearing, loud and awkward. Sarah Bonetta Davies is brought to life by Shannon Hayes, as she appears to have been completely absorbed into white society, while remaining a figure of some curiosity, especially to Mrs Waller, who is proud to have a ‘connection’ with Sarah, via a long sequence of friends of friends.
Action now shifts to the present day in Cheshire. A different Sarah (Donna Berlin), a structural engineer, is being sent to Nigeria to oversee a project and is annoyed at the office politics that have led to her being assigned. There’s been an unfortunate incident and neighbours Harriet and Ben have called round to offer a welcome gift. The mousy Harriet, played by Rebecca Charles, is gloriously grotesque in her determination to be absolutely PC, her efforts making her true self and prejudices more and more transparent. Richard Teveson’s Ben and Dave Fishley’s James spar together well, providing plenty of black humour – though Harriet would no doubt want us to use a more PC phrase there too.
Despite being many years apart, the two Sarahs have one thing in common in that both have largely been raised in a white culture; indeed, the modern Sarah states, without apparent irony, that she sees herself as a white woman because she is ‘culturally white’. The questions, unasked, about the appropriateness of cross-racial adoption and cultural appropriation loom large in the air and behind the humour there is an uncomfortable feeling that some of these characters have somehow been betrayed.
In a final imagined scene, an older Sarah Bonetta Davies is having tea with Queen Victoria (played with a curious mix of bombast and well-intentioned tenderness by Donna Berlin), while our modern-day Sarah looks on and comments. It does round off the evening by helping to shine light on the similarities of their experiences in Britain, albeit 150 or so years apart, but it does seem to fall a little flat, maybe because Victoria can accept no challenge to her own world view – it’s all very well for Sarah Bonetta Davies to run a school to help African girls be more English in Africa, but not appropriate, it seems, for those girls to come to Britain to seek suitable matches and be English here.
The Gift raises questions in our minds as we watch. While we might feel that Victorian England is almost a different country, the contemporary scenes serve to show that we may not have moved all that very far towards becoming a truly cohesive multi-cultural society. It’s episodic, deliberately so, and apparently cosy as it provides us with days in the lives of the two Sarahs, days that are unexceptional in themselves but which serve to highlight their shared experiences and the undercurrents they both seek to overcome.
Runs until 25 January 2020