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PlayFight at Seven Dials Playhouse | Review

Every once in awhile a play comes along that drives home an irrefutable truth, one which philosophers and playwrights have wrestled with since time immemorial. PlayFight, written by Christina Alagaratnam and directed by Leian John-Baptiste, is such a play.

PlayFight. L-R Landry Adelard (TJ), Carla Garratt (Zara) and Iain Gordon (Kai). Photo credit Sharron Wallace.
PlayFight. L-R Landry Adelard (TJ), Carla Garratt (Zara) and Iain Gordon (Kai). Photo credit Sharron Wallace.

Although PlayFight‘s themes draw us into the minefield young Black males confront on their road to full-blown maturity – if any of us can ever achieve such a thing – its overriding arc is that mistakes made in adolescence can either destroy all future ambitions or, in the most tragic circumstance, take our very lives from us. And this pubescent crown of thorns is worn most often by young, risk taking males, whether it’s a consequence of race, poverty or fractious family relationships. But PlayFight‘s focus is specific to the Black male-adolescent experience.

Now to discuss the brilliance of the three actors who comprise the complement of this most thought provoking play which reaches beyond its stated intentions.

When the play begins our eyes lock on Kai (Iain Gordon), a masterful young man dressed entirely in god-like white, his puffer jacket symbolic of astral white clouds, his throne an arrangement of luminescent white cubes infused with the lights of heaven. It takes scant seconds to realise the somber and unsmiling Kai is dead and too young to have died of natural causes. His solitary time in heaven is soon interrupted by his earthly best friend TJ (Landry Adelard) who is near death after suffering multiple stab wounds in a nasty altercation. Through TJ’s eyes, we envision the ambulance crew back on earth desperately trying to kick-start his fading heart beat.

The play then winds backwards to their younger 15-year-old selves, joined by a female bestie, Zara (Carla Garratt), who the boys affectionately refer to as Z. The conversation between the three is the jumping-off point for PlayFight‘s message and its politics, in particular to a school system that rewards the efforts of Black kids over White kids, and to Black parents who refuse to take a militant stance against injustice. To the play’s credit, it juxtaposes this critique by pointing up every Black parent’s nightmare.

TJ, who loves his mother dearly, holds her words inside his heart. ‘Every time she hears the sirens, she thinks it’s for me,’ he tells Kai and Zara. He also speaks of his mum’s philosophical outlook, even if he’s unsure of the power behind it: ‘Your work is your dignity’, she tells him, thereby mapping out his future and his safety. It’s his mum’s own approach to militancy, but TJ’s too young to understand it, although he senses he’s the cherished one.

Tensions mount and diffuse among the three friends until, in the school ground one day, Kai and TJ define their manhood by competing for Zara, not as a human being but as an object to be possessed and tossed about between them. Zara is accidentally knocked to the ground in this ‘playfight’ and the incident is caught on a CCTV camera. The boys are expelled and the incident is discussed as a problem in the way school official Miss Reid handles it, which results in Zara having to convince the boys she in no way colluded with the school official and, sadly, a way for the boys to ignore their own thug-like behaviour towards a physically weaker sex .

I viewed the incident as a moment to pause and evaluate its lessons. When Zara is injured, is she not representative of what Black people were subjected to for centuries? And also a moment for Kai and TJ to realise that, given a different set of circumstances, they, too, are capable of objectifying a human being for selfish gain. Perhaps these ideas can be explored in a future conversation.
Ian Gordon, Carla Garratt and Landry Adelard are among the finest young actors today. Leian John Baptiste’s directorial presence is felt in every scene, pushing the energy from each character’s body. Fight Director Kevin McCurdy is a marvel in ensuring an actor’s safety, and Movement Director Rhys Dennis ensures a pace where the play’s momentum might have lagged. Christina Alagaratnam has crafted a very complicated play, indeed. The sense is the ending has been reworked many times and may still undergo a revision, but PlayFight is an important work as it stands.

5 Star Rating

Review by Loretta Monaco

TJ, Kai and Zara have been inseparable as long as they can remember but as they’ve grown older, things have begun to change. For these young people, the way they are perceived feels like an inevitable script written in stone, carved decades before their birth. When the weight of that stone threatens to crush them, slowly and imperceptibly at first, this piece explores how alienation and a lack of support can make already vulnerable young Black people victims of harmful stereotypes.

PlayFight runs from 10 July – 5 August 2023
https://www.sevendialsplayhouse.co.uk/

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