Kiln Theatre, London – until 27 May 2023
If we think we suffer from a paranoid cancel-culture, we should note this reminder of mid-1950s America – notably Hollywood – in the McCarthyite witch-hunt against suspected communists. It’s a three-hander by Ryan Calais Cameron (who gave us For Black Boys…). It lays out in 90 minutes real time – though sometimes too slowly – a meeting in a movie office. Bobby (Ian Bonar, nervy and anxious) is telling the NBC lawyer Parks (Daniel Lapaine) that for his new, adventurous script the best casting is his friend Sidney Poitier, who’s about to arrive. Fresh from a breakthrough in The Blackboard Jungle, a sensation who will become the first major black movie star, Poitier is ideal. The writer is excited.
But – as Bobby warns Parks – his friend isn’t “Belafonte black” but “Black-black”. He is not, as Poitier himself puts it more frankly later, willing to “play the good-little-negro”. Parks at first brushes this away – he has been rapidly established as a bully, putting down the humble writer – with “You skinny little Beatniks, always looking for new ways to defy the rules”. When Sidney himself enters, a self-possessed and dignified Ivanno Jeremiah, Parks meets him with flippant patronising parody of street-speak. “What’s your tale, nightingale? What’s buzzin cousin?” He pours a lot of drinks, which Poitier doesn’t want, and carries on making both the others uncomfortable.
For rather too long, to be honest: there’s a risk that the company of these men, one weak and one arrogant, becomes in itself too grating. Though when Sidney is with them the charisma of Jeremiah holds the stage beautifully.
He has to defend himself against Parks’ irritation that he turned down another role because he didn’t want to play a passive black janitor who doesn’t speak out for his murdered daughter. Parks jeers at this, and starts implying the actor took money from someone for his stand – “You live in the ghetto… expect me to believe you didn’t have someone slipping dollars into your back pocket?” “I do not live in the ghetto” says Poitier flatly.
It is bracingly uncomfortable by now, and speeds up when it becomes clear that the black man is expected to sign a ‘denunciation’ of his hero, the campaigner and “known communist” Paul Robeson. We’re pretty sure he won’t, despite some politesses; but when Parks goes out for a while leaving poor Bobby “ten minutes to save your career” by persuading his friend to knuckle under, the extra dimension of what is now called “allyship” becomes interesting. Bobby’s not rich, says he comes from immigrant stock himself, that values are one thing and making a living is another, and “what’s the point of principles if you don’t have a platform?” His filmscript is about a strong black man in leadership, after all. And maybe “the best thing you can do for poor blacks is not be one of them”.
But of course we all clap and cheer when Poitier makes his decision clear, after a grand poetic riff about what Robeson has meant to him. It’s not a perfect play, claustrophobic and sometimes overwritten (Parks is almost too vile and rude to believe). But you leave it thinking hard, and hoping to see even more of Ivanno Jeremiah.
kilntheatre.com to May 27