Shadows, a new play by Carguil Lloyd George Webley, is a snapshot of prison life for 3 different black male prisoners and 1 prison officer in a British Birmingham prison. The 3 men are almost like 3 ages of man, who have different life experiences, perhaps reflecting various types of black British men. The 3 characters are vehicles to present the audience with many issues facing black male prisoners and black men in general.
The set of Shadows is necessarily sparse as most of the scenes are in a prison cell. It begins with Edmund Jones, effectively played by David Monteith, appearing to read a book and listening to Motown tracks such as “Say it Loud-I’m Black and I’m Proud.” This sets the tone for his character, who as the elder statesman, having been in prison for 21 years, espouses black separatist views, railing against how they are trying to control us. The other characters are similarly stereotypical; there is Balak Umar, played with a quiet intensity by Pharaon El-Nur, whom Edmund accuses of being a sell out, turning his back on his black culture. Balak, who was born and had an early childhood in America, was adopted and raised by white parents in the UK. He is unfamiliar with Caribbean food and reggae. He doesn’t understand dancehall music, R ‘n’ B, soul or hip-hop, which is easy shorthand for black culture.
We are also introduced to Chase, the caricature of a young angry black man, who has outbursts of shouting. Chase, passionately played by David Ogechukwu Isiguzo, is more than that, he was a high achiever at boarding school, but because he became a young father, his family disowned him. He got involved in crime to raise money to start a business. At one point Balak exposes Chase as a lost boy, fronting as a gangster. Chase displays flashes of intelligence and insight, which is why I found it difficult to understand why he trusts Edmund, asking him to help redraft his appeal letter. In return Edmund demands that Chase smuggle marijuana for him, which he does, even though Edmund constantly makes excuses for why he does not even read it. I didn’t think it was credible that Chase, who appears to be intelligent, articulate and well educated, would believe in Edmund, a chancer who spouts black separatist slogans, simply because he had been in prison for a lot longer than Chase who only has 10 months of his 12 month sentence left to serve. So I agree with Chase when he later says “I don’t know why I thought I could trust you.”
In a series of monologues, which felt like lectures, addressed to the audience, each character provides clues about their backstories. Balak hints at having been sexually abused by his father before being given up for adoption by his father, representing a double betrayal. Edmund had witnessed his father physically abusing his mother and in turn physically abused his wife. Although Edmund says that he has come to terms with his mistakes, in his soliloquy he expresses no remorse. In fact when his wife said they were equal, he raises the back of his hand to demonstrate how he showed his wife that they were not equal.
We also witness, what for me as a black woman, are hackneyed and sexist stereotypes of how some black men viewed black women vis a vis white women. Chase says that he would never settle with a black girl, as he doesn’t want to be shouted at all day and wants to be stress free. Chase thinks that with Susie chicks, another name for white women, black men can be whatever they want, behave however they want and Susie will still be there. Edmund at the other end of the spectrum asserts a stale and racist opinion from generations past, that Susie chicks are not clean and have no ethics or morals. Balak is used as the counterbalance to challenge these views, but as a sell out are his views valid?
We learn that before going to prison, Balak was a school teacher. He was imprisoned because he physically assaulted a male parent whom he suspected of physically abusing a school student called Timmy, as he always came into school with fresh marks on his arms and legs. During Balak’s soliloquy he complains that Timmy’s father can never lead a normal life again because of Balak and that’s all anyone will remember.
Carguil Lloyd George Webley uses Shadows to open up discussions about many issues, some which are generations old and specific to black communities such as: how some black men view black women in comparison to white women and how many black men in Britain, are disproportionately stopped and searched by the police and disproportionately imprisoned, compared to white Britons. The play provides Edmund to raise the issue of illiteracy, which is pertinent to the general prison population. All of the play’s characters debate issues which affect people of all races and colours, like domestic violence and child abuse and how a child’s upbringing can have a detrimental effect on their adulthood, sometimes succeeding in damaging their lives beyond repair. Spirituality and religion is also briefly added to the mix.
For me, Shadows is very much a work in progress, all the issues are not dealt with in great depth, perhaps because too many have been put in the pot. The protagonists, although earnestly portrayed by the actors, were not fully developed and therefore I had very little emotional investment in their outcomes. Some of the violent attacks against the characters are unconvincing, for example when Edmund, beats Balak whilst he is asleep. Other acts of violence are clearly signposted, such as when Balak stabs Edmund. Whilst Balak’s attack on Chase, as soon as Chase touches him, is understandable it did not ring true. Shadows would be improved with more focus and editing. It is bleak and without any hope. In the end, I wasn’t sure what the key messages were or who they were aimed at.
Shadows is on at Theatreo Technis from 5-7 December 2017