Written by Carguil Lloyd George Webley and directed Kevin Michael Reed, Shadows makes its world première at Theatro Technis in London. Focusing on three black inmates in Winson Green Prison, it addresses the potentially sensitive subject of black identity in the 21st century and how ‘cultural heritage’ can be a double-edged sword.
As the oldest of the three, Edmund (David Monteith) has been in and out of prison most of his adult life. Birmingham born and raised, he sees himself first and foremost as a man of Caribbean-descent and an advocate of all aspects of black music and culture. His new cellmate, Balak (Pharaon El-Nur) is as different from him as can be and almost immediately finds it hard to engage with him. Edmund’s not averse to speaking in patois, but Balak refrains from using colloquialisms or any of the vocabulary that black people sterotypically use. What’s even more perplexing for Edmund is Balak’s ‘ignorance’ of ‘black culture’ and his ‘ambivalence’ towards it. However, Balak’s ‘estrangement from his roots’ is not so hard to understand on closer inspection. As a child in the US, Balak’s father gave him up for adoption to a Caucasian couple from Britain. If ‘black culture’ means abandoning one’s own flesh and blood, Balak would identify himself as ‘British’ in honour of the people and culture that accepted him.
Between these two very different people is Chase (David Ogechukwu Isiguzo). Only 18-years-old, Chase has a young son he wants to keep in contact with. While he’s keen to be released ASAP so that he can get out into the real world and start his own business, past and present circumstances threaten to overshadow Chase’s appeal and scupper his chances for freedom…
Shadows is a well-written play that touches on many ‘taboos’ – or at least topics seldom voiced publicly. ‘Solidarity’ within the black community is frequently talked about and from Edmund’s point of view, a ‘necessity’ for the ‘brothers’ locked up. However, in practice Edmund finds it hard to supress his suspicions about Balak and repeatedly infers using offensive phrasing that Balak’s not a ‘real’ black person.
Of course, this raises the question of whether the latter half of Balak’s upbringing was a life of ‘privilege’ and as such, could he ever truly understand the ‘black experience’ in its totality. But on the flip side, why should education and academic achievements be ‘dirty words’ for the black community? If such opportunities occur, shouldn’t they be grasped?
Between Edmund and Balak, they both raise pertinent points about expectations of life and what is ‘true’. In the middle is Chase, young enough to moulded by both their opinions. While it would be convenient to paint Balak and Edmund as the proverbial ‘angel’ and ‘devil’ battling for Chase’s soul, in truth neither quite sees the whole picture, but the ‘truth’ as they both see it.
There are, however, differences between them that are unequivocal. Firstly, while Balak’s ‘moral high ground’ is off-putting to the others, his motives are genuinely altruistic. Edmund’s in contrast are… well he’s not always honest with himself about what he thinks versus what he feels, so he’s conflicted. The other difference between them is attitudes to race. While Balak’s upbringing has engendered a balanced perspective of race relations – recognising the good and bad in all and having an ‘English’ wife – Edmund’s experiences have coloured his outlook. Chase’s own interest in having a white girfriend because a ‘sista’ is too much hassle is shot down by Edmund and raises questions regarding black/white relationships – the same that have been voiced ever since Othello was written.
Most of the play revolves around the prisoners themselves, but one figure who indirectly has a great impact on all of them is Vince (Troy Richards) the guard. The short time that he has on stage highlights who is the ‘real’ prisoner there and who is being true to themselves.
The topics raised in Shadows are timeless, but are particularly pertinent in our ‘politically-aware’ climate, especially when the lurch to the Right in many countries has brought the issue of race to worldwide prominence again. That’s not to say having the play set in Winson Green Prison in Birmingham is inconsequential – the references to the city ground the story in a very real word and remind the audience that even for one of the hotspots for the Windrush Generation, much can change given enough time.
The play does supply one final warning though – ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions‘ – and in terms of helping one’s fellow man, actions are harder to take back than words…
© Michael Davis 2017
Shadows run at Theatro Technis until 7th December.