Review: Chiaroscuro (Bush Theatre)

Jackie Kay’s play on what it means to be black and gay concludes the Bush Theatre’s Passing The Baton series

Shiloh Coke, Gloria Onitiri, Preeya Kalidas and Anoushka Lucas in Chiaroscuro
Shiloh Coke, Gloria Onitiri, Preeya Kalidas and Anoushka Lucas in Chiaroscuro
© Johan Persson

I find it baffling that the talented Lynette Linton has decided to begin her directorship of the Bush Theatre with a gig theatre version of this play from 1986.

Written by the Scottish makar Jackie Kay and heavily adapted for this production as part of the Bush's admirable Passing the Baton series, which rediscovers older plays by writers of colour, Chiaroscuro is a highly charged and deeply poetic meditation on what it means to be black and gay. What it isn't, is a very communicative piece of theatre.

Here it's presented with songs, written by Shiloh Coke, who also plays one of the contrasting quartet of women whose stories unfold during its duration. We first meet them in the opening song, in which they reveal how they were named and unveil an object that has significance for them.

Coke is Beth, an apparently confident black woman, out about her sexuality yet cannot face looking at a photograph album that reveals her past boyfriends and her white childhood friends; Aisha (Preeya Kalidas) is a carpenter and temperamentally a conciliator, who presents a cushion she sat on as a child to listen to her mother's stories; Opal (Anoushka Lucas) has been brought up in children's homes and doubts her own worth, which is why she cherishes a broken mirror in which she cannot see her own face; Yomi (Gloria Onitiri) is a single mother of Nigerian origin who brings out a black doll, a symbol of the racist abuse she suffered from other children. All have suffered prejudice in their lives. All struggle to make sense of aspects of their past.

The plot, such as it is, concerns the developing relationship between Beth and Opal and the reaction of the other women to it. But the problem is, although they talk a lot, we don't really learn much more of them than we know in that atmospheric opening scene. This, combined with the fact that the action is so fractured and disjointed, means that although individual moments catch fire, the play as a whole does not.

The songs are attractive and the performances first-rate. Coke brings out Beth's vulnerability as well as her boldness and makes the most of some very sharp lines. Lucas is touchingly afraid as Opal and Onitiri makes the difficulties of Yomi's opinions – on mixed race women, on sexuality – believable, while Kalidas gently suggests someone whose desire to bring her friends together – most notably at a disastrous dinner party – blinds her to her own problems.

Each woman sings magnificently and acts with heart and subtlety, bringing out the differences between their characters. But it's not quite enough, and the rousing conclusion doesn't feel earned. Overall, Chiaroscuro feels well-meant but under-powered, not as subtle or as interesting as its title suggests. A missed opportunity.