Idris Elba and Kwame Kwei-Armah
Manchester International Festival, Green Door Pictures and the Young Vic
Upper Campfield Market Hall, Manchester
4 July 2019 – 13 July 2019; 1hr 30min
So this is what all the fuss has been about. Who should really be credited for the idea behind this show: Idris Elba and Kwame Kwei-Armah or Sarah Henley and Tori Allen-Martin? We all know there’s no copyright on ideas, but what about adapting someone else’s creative work?
Premiered at the Manchester International Festival last night and destined for The Young Vic soon, the show is about young UK-born mixed-race guy Kaelo (Alfred Enoch), who goes to South Africa with his mother’s ashes in an urn to try to find out something about the black father he never knew.
The time-frame wasn’t totally clear to me, though from the dating of the flashbacks to when he was conceived – 1985 – and the age he seems to be now, it looks as if ‘now’ is 10-15 years ago. His grandmother, Elzebe (Sinéad Cusack), a surviving white landowner, uses walkie-talkies to contact the workers on her estate, not a mobile phone.
Without giving it all away, it turns out Kaelo, through his long-dead father, has an older black half-sister Ofentse (Joan Iyiola, in a winning performance), who has fought her way from poverty to considerable wealth. Through conversations with old farm worker Gweki (Patrice Naiambana, another very attractive portrayal), and with a bit of help from dreams inspired by the ancestral spirits, Kaelo finds out how his mother (played in flashback by Lucy Briggs-Owen) and father (Kurt Egyiawan) briefly loved before tragedy struck.
Sinéad Cusack’s character is the most challenging, as she has the most baggage in her past, and though at first she’s simply a monster of a white settler, she does develop another side and does it convincingly.
But would you have booked a flight to South Africa and arranged to stay there with your grandmother without telling her that your mother, her daughter, had died some time before and you were bringing the ashes with you? Even pre-Skype and pre-WhatsApp it doesn’t seem quite credible. But get over that and there’s a good dramatic idea to work out, with a recent-history background, and this production has big resources behind it.
There’s an ensemble of dancers, also representing the spirits of African ancestors, and their movement helps tell the story – not so effectively to represent a long-haul flight near the start, but very effectively to represent the inter-racial violence of 1985.
And there’s music. This is a puzzle, as both sides of the attribution argument say the concept was built around Idris Elba’s mi Mandela album, and of course he’s big in the credits and his name has helped to sell the show – some people seem to have turned up outside Upper Campfield Market Hall last night just to see him make an entrance from his big black people carrier.
I thought the music tracks were far from being the strongest element in the mix, though dance is a key to its theme, with the show opening and closing as ‘gig theatre’, and the audience invited to get down (or up) on the stage with DJ Stefan Sinclair.
If there is a message here, it lies in the idea that the appropriate way to respond to past conflict and tragedy is "I think we should dance…"
Maybe that should have been Twee, rather than Tree.