‘I hear people talk about God’s justice and I wonder.’
Angelina Weld Grimké was a mixed-race poet, scholar, playwright, feminist and lesbian icon; she was known as a withdrawn person, but for someone so reclusive she had an extremely active and public literary life.
Rachel, a play about the problems of a black family in a Northern American city, was first produced in 1916 in Washington as a protest against the DW Griffiths film ‘Birth of a Nation’ and its support of the Ku Klux Klan. The play was a shocker in its day, and despite the awkwardness of structure and a certain clumsiness in the dialogue, it still feels relevant and packs a punch. This excellent production at the Finborough Theatre is the European premiere – and the world’s first production for nearly 100 years.
In brief, Rachel is the story of a young woman whose intense love for children leads to tragedy when she is faced with her family secret and realises what their fate will be in a white society. The Loving family (the names – Loving, Strong, etc are a bit too obviously symbolic) are intelligent, educated, civilised people trying to make their way in a seemingly unsegregated part of America. Rachel, a remarkably naive believer not only in the goodness of children but the goodness of God, is crushed when she understands that the children she loves will be blighted by prejudice and the God she believes in cannot save them.
It has to be said that twenty-eight seems a rather mature age to discover that racism is everywhere, but Adelayo Adedayo gave a performance of such strength and charm that I let the thought pass. I let quite a few other things pass as well, those nasty little questions that arise when the structure of a play is not quite logical enough. Why didn’t their mother tell her children their father had been lynched instead of sitting around drooping with unexplained depression? Why are things ‘getting worse’ as everyone keeps saying? Why do only two people in an entire building get smallpox and die, leaving their child unscarred, seemingly untraumatised and utterly adorable? There was a lot of teeth curling symbolism on the premises as well: a lot of roses were ripped up and thrown around, a pillow playfully used in a childish game symbolised the weapon that preserved that child from the blows of society. Rachel herself also rejects a possible happy alliance with a handsome and charming young man who has accepted his position and is making the best of it. Her reason, illustrated by all those ripped up roses, seemed to be that she felt she was unable to have the children she so desired in a world which would ruin them. To me her reasoning left a lot to be desired but no one in the play disagreed with her, not even her putative fiancé.
There is far too much telling (see under ‘smallpox’ ‘bullying’ and ‘stone throwing’) and not nearly enough showing, as if the author was afraid that left to our own devices we might miss the point. However this doesn’t matter much, oddly enough. The characters were so powerfully drawn and acted that I held my breath hoping Rachel would find happiness (although I’m not sure I myself would care to marry a man who called me ‘little girl’ and given Ms Grimké’s feminist credentials I’m not sure she would have either). Zephryn Taitte is handsome and charming, and perhaps the character would have seen the error of his ways post marriage, although his speech describing the flat he had prepared for his intended without consulting her, although beautifully delivered, would have sent most modern women screaming from the premises.
If all this sounds like an old fashioned, rather clunky polemic, well, yes, it is. But it gripped me throughout for two reasons. One reason was the author’s integrity which shone through the muddle of her political social and sexual commitments; she’s so passionate a writer that she makes everything she says worth listening to. Another reason was that the basic premise of this play is still true: racism is if anything more endemic than ever, and not only against the black community in the United States; this play brings that fact sharply into focus. These characters are very real; old fashioned, yes, but genuinely connected to us. Watching them is like looking at an old sepia photograph – the clothes and settings are old fashioned, the options open to the characters more limited, the language is somewhat quaint, but we can recognise these people, and their dilemmas reach out and shame us today. This play is set in a time whose problems and prejudices are not yet over.
It is easy to criticise the awkward writing and the heavy-handed moments of Rachel but, I was not bored, I believed in these people and worried about them and, yes, I was angry on their behalf. And the final touch – I wondered what would happen to them when the play ended, how they would have reacted in the 1960s and who they would be today. I wanted to continue to engage with them.
Review by Kate Beswick
Rachel by Angelina Weld Grimké
The European premiere
“Today, we colored men and women, everywhere – are up against it… In the South, they make it as impossible as they can for us to get educated. In the North, they make a pretence of liberality; they give us the ballot and a good education, and then snuff us out. Each year, the problem just to live, gets more difficult to solve.”
Rediscovered by Finborough Theatre Artistic Director Neil McPherson, Rachel is a genuinely lost landmark of American theatre – the first play by an African American woman ever produced professionally. The European premiere – and the world’s first production for nearly 100 years – of Rachel is directed by exciting young director Ola Ince, as part of Black History Month.
Cast: Adelayo Adedayo as Rachel Loving, Sheila Atim as Mrs Lane, Miquel Brown as Mrs Loving, Nakay Kpaka as Tom Loving, Zephryn Taitte as John Strong, Kaylah Black as Ethel Lane, Lexyn Boahen as Ethel Lane, William Wright-Neblett as Jimmy Mason.
Directed by Ola Ince
Designed by Alex Marker
Lighting by Elliot Griggs
Costume Design by Anna Lewis
Sound by Max Pappenheim
Casting by Axa Hynes
Presented by Aidan Grounds and Hannah Groombridge for ABG Productions in association with Neil McPherson for the Finborough Theatre.
Tuesday to Saturday Evenings at 7.30pm.
Sunday Matinees at 3.00pm.
Saturday Matinees 3.00pm (from second week of the run)
Saturday 4th October 2014