This Time It’s Personal
This apt revival of Caryl Phillips’ first play, “Strange Fruit”, stirred up a maelstrom of memories for me, a second generation Caribbean immigrant, growing up in a city on the south coast of 1970s/1980s England. Phillips’ strength is to draw on the biographies of first and second generation Caribbean immigrants and trigger a myriad of thoughts and feelings about the many issues which affect them in the late 1970s. The skill of the talented cast is to make their characters experiences pack a visceral and sometimes painful punch.
Rakie Ayola’s super power as Vivian, is her ability to subtly convey an array of emotions in her facial expressions and in her physicality. Vivian is self-disciplined and restrained. Over the course of the play she is bewildered, frightened, fleetingly amused, stunned, chastened and finally angry.
When we meet Vivian she is the mother of adult sons; 25 year old Alvin and 21 year old Errol 21, who live with her in England. Vivian is self-controlled but nervous and probably hyper vigilant. It’s as if she is expecting to be kicked. Perhaps this is a legacy of the abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband when they were living in the Caribbean and the racism she experiences in England? Her sons constantly bully her; Errol is particularly cruel and abusive, but he and Alvin are both content to live off her. Vivian is like their servant, she still picks up their clothes dropped on the floor, cooks, cleans and washes and irons their clothes. Vivian is very well aware of how they mistreat her, especially Errol, as she scolds him for bullying her and his girlfriend Shelley.
Vivian has not told her sons why she left the Caribbean for England and what happened to their father. We discover that Vivian escaped the violent abuse of her husband in the Caribbean, to protect her and her sons. Vivian’s actions are likely to have been more motivated by hope than despair, as she also grabbed the opportunity to make a better life for herself and her sons in England. Vivian is not simply a survivor of domestic abuse, racism and racist abuse, as she has ambitions for herself and her sons. She worked hard to become a teacher and ensure that her children have the chance of higher education. Vivian doesn’t understand why some people, including her friend and neighbour Vernice and her sons, accuse her of being white, due to her hope, ambition and attempts at assimilation.
Vivian is a mass of contradictions, she is clearly very independent; she took her young sons from the Caribbean to England by herself and built up a new life as a teacher. However she is also co-dependent, she needs to be needed by her sons. She tells Alvin, she did it all for them. Vivian also exhibits some nervousness and fragility; at times she seems stunned by what happens. Although she appears to cope with the bullying and insults there is a cost. The very proper and well-spoken Vivian self-soothes with rum, which hints at alcoholism.
Vivian’s friend, the straight talking, pleasure loving, oath- spewing Vernice, played as naturalistic by Tilly Steele, is a good foil for Vivian’s upright character. Vernice has seized life and enjoyed it, but is somewhat neglectful of her teenage daughter. Vernice is fun; as personalities and friends Vernice and Vivian complement each other. Vernice serves as well balanced comic relief, with her pertinent one-liners, peppered with swear words.
The cast in Strange Fruit succeeded in making me so invested in their characters, that I was annoyed at how the realistic angst of Jonathan Ajayi’s Errol and the responsible elder brother Alvin, played by Tok Stephen, mistreated their mother and took her for granted; expecting her to be her servant and yet blaming her for everything that goes wrong in their lives. However Vivian created this situation. Errol and Alvin didn’t understand what she had been through to give them a better life. Vivian had kept this hidden. We only learn about her spousal abuse later on when Vivian is confronted by Alvin. Why does Alvin assume Vivian has done something wrong? It is revealed that Vivian’s mother and siblings haven’t forgiven her for not standing by her man, who himself was a victim of racism; his career as a cricketer ended abruptly when he took a stand against racism. As a result he took it out on Vivian and their children, descending into drunkenness and violence. Vivian’s best option was to gather her dignity, scraps of hope and her children and flee to England for a better life. Alvin is not convinced by this.
Strange Fruit also deals with other issues facing first and second generation immigrants from the Caribbean, in 1970s and 1980s Britain. It is highly likely that they have been traumatised by their experiences and are suffering a form of PTSD. Vivian is suffering due to: spousal abuse in Caribbean and the shock of everyday racism and verbal and physical racist attacks in England. Errol and Alvin, although they do not remember their father, have to deal with Vivian’s pain. They have grown up without a father. They also have to manage the ongoing racism experienced by young black men in 1970s and 1980s Britain, including the SUS laws. Errol and Alvin are trying to find out who they are and idolise a father they never knew. Errol presents as someone in mental health crisis, with his violent outbursts, paranoia and self-harming behaviour. Who is to blame, what is to blame, for their misery? Alvin scapegoats his mother, Errol bullies and scapegoats Shelley, his girlfriend, and his mother.
Vivian’s soliloquy about the first time she saw snow is searing; it was the culmination of a series of verbally and physically racist assaults she suffered in one day of 1960s Britain. This gives us an insight into her life during that period, her appeasement and perhaps why she uses rum as a crutch.
I found myself reflecting about the daily racist abuse I experienced growing up. I also recalled my childish anger about my mother’s desire to assimilate, when we experienced so much racism. I was also angry at experiencing and witnessing various injustices, including racism. As a young adult, I used my anger and became politically active, eventually becoming a trade union activist.
Errol is more destructive in his anger. He drops out and plays at being a black nationalist. Unfortunately his mental health is also suffering; he repeatedly slaps himself, but also harms those closest to him, his mother and Shelley, with his put downs and hatred. He is flailing, confused and drowning. He constantly criticises Shelley, his white girlfriend, whom he abuses as a symbol of the racism he has suffered from white people, so blames her. He hates her, but still has sex with her.
With Shelley, heartbreakingly played by Tilly Steele, Phillips also references the experience of some poor white working class British women, who are also oppressed. Shelley discloses that her mother and father hate each other. Her father beats up her mother and hurls misogynistic insults at Shelley. Shelley is unloved and uncared for, she holds on to Errol as he shows her some attention and care. Shelley craves love and affection and is very well aware that Errol’s mistreatment of her is abusive, which she tries to correct. Shelley is as much a victim, as a poor working class girl, labelled as stupid and a slapper, as Errol is as working class young black man.
Strange Fruit is a multi-layered play; it is not all serious there are many lighter moments, especially in the exchanges between Vivian and Vernice. There is much food for thought. No prior experience is necessary to understand the various issues and enjoy this intelligently written and superbly acted play.
All photos by Helen Murray
Strange Fruit is at Bush Theatre from 12 June to 27 July 2019