The Gift by Janice Okoh at Carriageworks Leeds

The Gift by Janice Okoh at Carriageworks Leeds

In Janice Okoh’s play The Gift, Sarah Forbes Bonetta, real-life African ward of Queen Victoria, encounters her modern black middle-class counterpart. An exploration of imperialism, cross-racial adoption and cultural appropriation over a cup of tea.

As an alternative to the more traditional theatre review format, SHEILA FREEMAN, VANESSA MUDD, PAULINE MAYERS and ZOE PARKER – two women of colour and two white – share their thoughts feelings and emotions.

Janice Okoh’s impactful intertwining of period and modern day plot, depicts the true life “gifting” of a highly intelligent West African orphaned princess to the monarch, Queen Victoria. Dawn Walton’s uncompromising and expert direction provides the team of consummate actors with the opportunity to portray a range of controversial topics. From imperialism to post racial delusion, the Gift had just the right amount of exuberance, vitriol, shamefacedness and pathos to draw the audience in and provoke levels of audible feedback rarely witnessed in modern day, mainstream theatre spaces. Sumptuous costumes, believable sets and a powerful, emotionally charged ending, guaranteed an evening of thought-provoking, undeniably challenging theatre, generously spiced with moments of comic brilliance.

Collectively: Wow!

VM: I feel like I want to see it again, they pack so much into three scenes, it’s so clever.

PM: I’m fortunate this is the second time I’ve seen it. Partly because of the current work I’m doing which is all about colonialism, I could see the whole of the first half had so many things in it, which weren’t just about etiquette. You also have the time itself; the understanding that you’ve got a very well-to-do black couple and what does that mean in British history and British society? It wasn’t comfortable at all.

Then we had the character who kept saying, ‘I’m not going to say anything’ but then launched into ‘but I’m going to tell you…’ That was so much about how whiteness always states itself. What they did in the first half was a great set up for the second half.

SF: Yes, the impact of the second half couldn’t have been made without it.

VM: I thought there were so many layers, the colonial part and also the class structure and the awkwardness around Agnes. When she sits down, you have the fact that she is black but also the fact she is a maid. There were so many niceties around what could be said, plus the undertones of what’s not being said aloud.

PM: And within all of that is the understanding that Sarah is African and the sense of Africa being one country. ‘How do you do things?’ How do you present yourself etc and Sarah’s response – I don’t know I’ve been in Britain since I was seven! But the expectation is that you do know what this is because that’s ‘your people’. Even though she was in the upper echelons of British society she is not accepted.

VM: The posh woman in purple did resentment really well; I have to be nice to you because of your connection to Queen Victoria, but all of that hierarchy and Sarah’s blackness was really messing with her mind. When she looks at the Constable painting, that look of disgust summed up her true feelings.

PM: For me I liked the detail – in that society it was about who knew who and married certain people in order to gain status. So that whole part where she lists the connections, all of that was so important – everyone was building a dynasty position. I don’t think many people in this country realise that we have the royal family but also these steps to get to the royal family. It’s so multi-layered that made it so interesting and yet accessible. You didn’t need to know any of that to get a sense of what was going on and how things were.

VM: Not only is the writing strong and provides great structure but the acting was amazing; when no one was speaking you could read the subtext.

SF: It’s a classic example of how what isn’t said can have such an impact. The use of facial expressions said everything you needed to know. I knew as soon as she (the Harriet Waller character, who called upon the princess and her family, in the first act) looked at the painting she was going to ask, “Is that a Constable” the epitome of status, at that time.

There may have been even black people in the audience who are of the opinion that black people in any real numbers, in Britain, only arrived through immigration during the so-called Windrush generation invitation, by the British Government. I think many people would not be aware that there were black people in Britain centuries ago. Hopefully they will go home and learn more about the history. This play’s a learning tool, it would be great for schools, there is so much power in it.

ZP: It would be amazing if the script could be used in schools as a GCSE drama script.

The scripts will be available on the Eclipse site soon, but in the meantime can be purchased online here.

PM: I want to get the play text and continue looking at it because there’s so many layers. It’s like an onion, every time you think you’ve got a sense of it something else happens. This is brilliant writing and the direction was spot on, a spectacular job. I think the actors did a brilliant job. I would love to speak to the actress who played the white woman in the modern couple and ask her what was that like for you?

ZP: And the older woman in the first scene was so vicious, the looks that she was giving!

SF: Yes, some of the best acting I have seen in a very long time.

ZP: It was unafraid, so unafraid. But that’s what we need about these ideas.

Pm : It’s a theme isn’t it? We’re in Brexit right now so the notion about Britishness and what that means is being questioned.

ZP: I did see it in that light as well, what is it to be British? ‘Toad in the hole, bangers and mash… fish and chips ’ Then, onto, ‘Oh yes, gluten free muffins and herbal teas’!

SF: I love these little nods to the kind of craziness and the pettiness that we base our lives on (the shallowness and the futility of it all, really).

PM: It tackles another thing – white saviourism, that was really clear in everything.

ZP: It made me feel really uncomfortable and I was very interested in how it did that.

PM: What was it that made you feel uncomfortable?

ZP: I can relate to it, even though that isn’t about me, it is actually about me. I recognise some of my own behaviour. Like when the white female character was being overly sympathetic and physically leaning on the black female character, I mean I wouldn’t do that but I recognise that kind of saviour behaviour. And it’s interesting because it’s a really strong programming and the more I recognise it, the more of it I see in myself and other white people.

The Middle Scene

ZP: The power of the middle scene was that some of those things might not be said out loud but you would still be able to hear the message.

PM: What’s very interesting about the middle bit is that you know one of the characters has a broken arm, you know something has gone on but not what. When the doorbell goes and the characters arrive you know they are not coming here to be nice, they are coming there for something. The part about the white woman being on the British Bake Off is all around status play. There is the subtext – you’re not meant to be here and we’re going to find out who you are. That sense that yeah you’re British but we don’t see you as that.

ZP: The whole play on the mistakes that the woman makes for example using BAME ‘or is it bamee?’ all of that conversation I feel is totally there but I can’t imagine anyone one saying it out loud that overtly. It would be more inferred.

PM: All of that scene is all about I’m a nice person, I understand the situation, I understand the acronyms and I’m now trying to to have a connection with you because of BAME. Without really understanding what the hell that is, the history of it or where it comes from. That happens all the time.

SF: I hear Zoe when she says that it happens less, apart from if you get somebody very bloody minded like the husband in this scene who is just going to say whatever he feels. Things like this happen more subtly, this is often played out in situations like not getting a job.

VM: I liked the use of the Prada bag echoing the status of the Constable and as she says ‘Do nannies wear Prada?’. The scene was all about deception; it was all cloak and dagger. At the beginning when she is on the phone and is being sent to Nigeria for work; it’s clearly because she is the black person in the office. Then throughout the ‘Boden’ woman just said the wrong thing constantly.

For me the only person who spoke the truth was the white husband when he said it was about not being white. He was the one telling the truth and wasn’t prepared to pretend. Although the other two scenes had elements of discomfort, the modern scene was so uncomfortable to watch because they got it so right. It was very powerful; the writer made the ‘Boden’ woman say almost every wrong thing it was possible to say!

SF: The whole power of the writing was that it was making me really gnash my teeth, yet, at the same time, I was laughing. It was so realistic and yet not (in that the kind of honesty of feeling in some parts, is so rare).

PM: When she digs and digs and you just want her to stop, you keep thinking ‘Stop it, stop it, can it get any worse?’ and then ‘bamee’ comes out and then the rest of her claims about being mixed heritage, no biracial…etc. It was painful and hilarious.

VM: I think the whole point of this section was poking fun at the respectable I’m not a racist and it was so well done.

PM: Seeing it the first time was deep enough but seeing it a second time takes it even deeper. And that shows you the power of the writing and acting, you could see it coming from her a mile away and you’re thinking don’t do it, don’t do it…

SF: And in a good way; the deliberateness of that was brilliant.

ZP: I liked the way the audience were heckling as well.

PM: There was something very interesting here about the audience as opposed to the audience when I saw it at Stratford East. The interaction of the audience here was far more lively than it was in London. This is interesting. I have experienced seeing performances that are racially offensive, witnessing artistic audiences not respond and just be quiet. This audience here was very good and not necessarily all artistic people in the audience, the response was very live and real. It felt to me like the audience really properly connected with everything they saw and heard. I did notice that the audience here they got it so much that they were cracking up.

ZP: I don’t have a sense of humour but I found it hilarious!

SF: What I loved about the black middle-class woman is that you could see that whole “Imposter Syndrome” realisation start to come about with her. Her recognising she is in this world and she doesn’t really belong. It was really interesting to see that start and for her it started really slowly and then all of a sudden it impacted on her and I thought that was done brilliantly. As she started to realise, she started standing up to the white husband that was really good for me.

PM: I think there is something really interesting when she said I consider myself white. I think that speaks to ideas like reverse racism, it speaks to the woman in America who pretended to be black – for 16 years. You cannot have reverse racism, it doesn’t exist because in order to have racism you have to have prejudice and power. That’s the systemic thing and that’s a bit we have lost sight of. In this country there is a real sense of diluting what racism is. A lack of understanding of the systematic, and institutional, we cannot get away from these things.

ZP: And they did that really well, pointing out the beliefs – around black women – no one has ever believed that you’re beautiful. When that list went on… it’s not like I haven’t heard any of this before but to hear it in a list like that, then hearing people around me nodding. It reminds us, we’ve got a long way to go.

VM: This was like a phenomenal novel that’s inches thick, being told in a
play. There’s so much in it, all of what we’ve discussed and then all of the female aspect as well. It was so neatly tied in, especially for the modern black woman, you wanted to get hold of her and make it all go away.

SF: I found that black audiences feel uncomfortable with nakedness.

PM: I’m glad you raised that because when I saw this in Stratford I couldn’t work out what the point of that was. Now I realise black women are always in a raw and vulnerable state and the problem is that no one else around them sees it. So when things are happening for you and you know nobody around you is seeing it, not even responding to your heart and your pain. To explore that was very strong and powerful.

ZP: I liked the scene because I went from laughing my ass off to really feeling upset for her.

Summing up

ZP: As I was watching the play and hearing the reactions of the black audience around me, I was realising that there were things I was missing, that aren’t my experience so I see differently, I don’t understand or feel it the same way. This enhanced the experience of this play for me.

SF: Something I write about a lot is that many black people are still of the belief that we live in this post-racial society – that racism has now been eradicated; the middle-class black couple really seemed to have bought into it – until it all unravelled. That’s the theme even with Brexit, the Windrush scandal and an ongoing Hostile Environment: people will still make excuses. To me this play is so of our time; is completely timely and I loved it.

VM: They weren’t afraid to use the language of the times and didn’t skirt around it; using terms like natives and savages. We should be uncomfortable when we hear those words, that’s the whole point.

PM: In 1661 an Act was created and distributed to the Commonwealth, particularly to the Caribbean, paving the way in part for the British slave trade. It was called the ‘Act for the Better Ordering and Governing of Negroes’. The very first line says, ‘Africans are wild, barbarous and savage’. It’s only a couple of pages, it’s housed at the British Library. This was read out to churches across the Caribbean for damn near 200 years. So that sense of ‘savage’ didn’t just come out of nowhere it was actually ingrained overtime. It’s attention to detail like this where you see that the writing is so great.

VM: I think this was brave thankfully, I’m fed up seeing things that hint at ideas because then absolutely nothing changes. There won’t be great changes from this but it tackles race, identity and racism head on.
It would be really interesting to see what different audiences make of this and what they can and can’t get from it. I think watching it with black people has made it a better experience for me, absorbing reactions from the audience which added to my understanding.

I’m a really quiet audience member and like to pick up on other people’s feelings as they watch. Also sometimes you’re focused on one part of the stage and the audience reaction can clue you to something else you’re missing.

PM: That also keys into ideas around etiquette and theatre etiquette. Like at the Hackney Empire which is sometimes a totally black space; people will cuss and respond to what’s happening and shout at the stage. You can’t be doing that at the Leeds Playhouse because people would tell you to be quiet. There is an assumption of what etiquette is, even though 200 years ago in theatre people would drink and laugh and it was rowdy.

The Gift was presented by Eclipse Theatre and Belgrade Theatre Coventry at the Carriageworks Theatre, Leeds, March 2020.
First published on The Culture Vulture, and reproduced here by kind permission of the editors.
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