Jackie Kay’s Chiaroscuro was first performed in 1986, and is therefore something of an historical piece of theatre. Bush Theatre has updated Chiaroscuro into a gig theatre production.
Chiaroscuro deals with the friendships, loves and lives of black LGBQ women and a straight black single mother, through the media of: spoken word, song, music, dialogue and poetry. In many ways it is very much of its time, in that homophobia was more openly prevalent in society, no doubt encouraged by the vicious Thatcher governments, which passed the notoriously homophobic Section 28 a few years after Chiaroscuro was first written and staged. Although there have been some key civil rights victories for LGBQT communities, as most people are aware, homophobia is still present. Nevertheless public attitudes have generally changed over 30 years, perhaps reflecting the successful campaigns for more equal rights, translated into some key legislation.
Chiaroscuro spells out some of the main coming out issues faced by many lesbians, with racism, colourism and prejudice added into the mix. These problems are explored in various vignettes; as dialogue, in song and poetry, with the lives of the 4 characters interweaving. There is a lot of humour in Chiaroscuro, particularly in the character of Beth, played by Shiloh Coke as forthright, quick witted and sometimes awkward. We witness the self-loathing and awakening of mixed race woman Opal, played with wide-eyed innocence by Anoushka Lucas who struggles with her identity and how others view her. Aisha, played by Preeya Kalidas is of Indian sub continent heritage, she is the people pleaser and peace maker of the group. Gloria Onitiri’s Yomi, who is of African descent, is the bigoted one; the least accepting of and the most disgusted by LGBQ people.
I was not convinced by Yomi’s sudden transition from bigotry to acceptance of her friends’ sexuality, given how much hatred she harboured against same-sex relationships and lesbian and gay people in general. I also found Chiaroscuro somewhat dated and disjointed; at times it felt preachy, which was, arguably, more necessary in the eighties than now. The characters seemed stereotypical and would benefit from more development and nuance. There was no real plot; it was more like a series of sketches, which should make it a good fit for a gig theatre show, but it did not quite make it, due to the lack of a story arc.
The strength of Chiaroscuro is in how each member of cast sang beautifully and played musical instruments well. I loved their voices; the harmonies were tight and the lyrics were gorgeously expressive. The spoken word and poetry recitals by the characters were melodic; sometimes elegiac, sometimes rhapsodic and always beautiful, due to Kay’s poetic writing and of course the actors’ skilful and energetic portrayals.
Chiaroscuro succeeds as a celebration of how the lives of different black women are thriving, whatever their sexuality.
Chiaroscuro is at the Bush Theatre from 31 August to 5 October