Originally performed in 1988 and at the National Theatre in 1995, the recent run of Winsome Pinnock’s Leave Taking is both timely and welcome. Set in Deptford, the play opens with the Matthews family visiting Mai (Faith Miamba). As a practitioner of ‘obeah’ – a general term for a variety of spiritualism/divination techniques from Africa and the Caribbean – Mai has been practising it for many years and at this stage of her life (consultations aside) leads a solitary existence.
Making an unscheduled visit on Easter Monday, Enid (Lina Rhymes) brings her two daughters in tow. Del (Chanté Frazer), the eldest, is less than enthusiastic to be there, while Viv (Cerise Angela) who is studying her ‘A’ levels, takes this visit as an opportunity to see a seldom-seen facet of black culture. This scene sums up the play in a nutshell: different generations of black women looking for answers – or at least comfort – in a world that doesn’t understand the sacrifices they’ve made or the unseen battles they face.
While they are not antagonistic towards each other, it’s perhaps not surprising that Del and Viv are respectively perceived by their mother to be ‘rebellious’ and ‘obedient’. Enid doesn’t worry about VIv, who spends most of her time indoors studying, but she is worried about Del’s ‘all-night excursions’. And as mother and daughter have a frayed relationship at best, Enid is desperate for answers.
If Enid is a pragmatist, ‘accepting’ for better of or worse her life in England, ‘uncle’ Broderick (Maxveal Mclaren) is the optimist who waxes lyrical about life ‘back home’ – providing the Matthews girls their primary source of anecdotes about life in Jamaica. Arguably describing the past through ‘rose-tinted glasses’, Broderick’s positive spin about yesteryear can be traced to the different forms of racism he’s endured over the years and doesn’t think of himself as British.
On the basis of his experience, he suggests to Enid that she should keep her Jamaican passport ready, because it’s only a matter of time before the Home Office changes its mind and decides to expel them… Of course such an event did happen during the Windrush scandal from 2018-onwards, when many Jamaicans who had been living in Britain for several decades (and were British subjects) were deported – proving how prophetic Broderick’s/Pinnock’s assertion is.
Through Broderick’s conversation with Viv and Enid about pertinent history – not what is in text books, but what happened to Jamaicans over the past 200+ years (and ergo every other country the British Empire formerly controlled) – Pinnock makes an apt observation about what’s omitted in the UK education syllabus, which goes to explain why much of ‘British’ history is known by every country except Britain itself.
Leave Taking is at times funny, as well as ‘nostalgic’, without being sentimental. Under director Landé Belo’s hand, the play’s many strengths are brought to the fore, fleshing out the intergenerational conflicts and lack of closure – even with family ‘back home’. By the close of the play, all the women have taken steps to redefine their identity and legacy. However, this ‘growth’ hasn’t been ‘easy’ and only achieved when coaxed to face some uncomfortable truths.
© Michael Davis 2022
Leave Taking ran at the Tower Theatre from 21st September to 1st October.