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Retrograde by Ryan Calais-Cameron

From Arthur Miller’s 1953 The Crucible to Christopher Trumbo’s 2003 play about his legendary screenwriter father, Trumbo: Red, White & Blacklisted, America’s shameful sacrifice of liberty for perceived ‘security’ against communism has been explored by many a fine playwright. Likewise, J Edgar Hoover’s brutal, unchecked and prolonged efforts to suppress the realisation of civil rights in the United States under the veil of ‘fighting the red menace’ has found expression in various films including Selma (2014) and Fred Hampton biopic Judas and the Black Messiah (2021). But Ryan Calais Cameron’s intense ‘in-the-room’ one-act, Retrograde, takes us somewhere else. It exposes the most ‘un-American’ but commonplace of activities: (attempted) divide and conquer – and it does so as we dare to dream that talent and hard work will be rewarded in America… and yet.

Sidney (Ivanno Jeremiah) credit Marc Brenner.
Sidney Poitier (Ivanno Jeremiah). Credit Marc Brenner.

Ryan Calais Cameron has two plays on the London stage right now. Set in different eras and with different styles, there is a central and powerful theme in both: legitimate anger and its threat to personal sanity. He gives an articulate voice to the soul-destroying, crazy-making and nearly inexpressible fury of what injustice feels like in both works.

This play opens on a hot summer’s day in mid-century New York City, on Frankie Bradshaw’s naturalistic set. Anticipation is ripe as screenwriter Bobby (Ian Bonar) anxiously lingers to ensure his leading man, one Mr Sidney Poitier (Ivanno Jeremiah), signs his contract for an NBC biracial buddy movie he’s written for which network suit, lawyer and casual white supremacist, Mr Parks (Daniel Lapaine) holds the balance of power on the deal and perhaps a bit more.

Some of the introductory schtick between Bonar and Lapaine is overly-mannered – Mamet-like but alas a touch Mamet-lite. The distrust and jeopardy rises between the two white men, with quick-fire dialogue and faux and suspicious bonhomie, under Amit Sharma’s direction, until a young and not-yet-famous Sidney arrives.

Ivanno Jeremiah’s entrance is a game-changer in every way. Subtle, contained, briefly self-conscious, and then – when placed repeatedly in personally threatening and soul-destroying conditions – explosively articulate. With pace, the play finds its moment as Poitier is cornered and threatened with a Hobbesian choice to destroy his career or denounce the genius artist and human rights activist Paul Robeson as part of the ‘red threat’.

Although the play is, on one hand, an adaptation of previously documented history, it is in this moment that Cameron’s creative strength impresses as he frames these events by sharing, viscerally, the internal world of their protagonists. When even a seeming ally warns the fledgling actor to avoid the stereotype of the ‘angry Black man’, Jeremiah cuts him off – with pathos and power – explaining, ‘I am angry, Bobby! The type of anger that manifests itself when you have been so angry that you’re literally burning up inside, you’re burning up with rage, you’re about to blow a fuse, but you don’t. You can’t. You come to learn that you must find positive outlets for anger or it will destroy you physically, destroy everyone you come into contact with; because it reaches such intensity that to express it fully would require homicidal rage, self-destructive, destroy the whole fucking world the rage, and its flame burns because the world is so unjust.

Cameron’s play catches its stride about a quarter of the way in – at which point it becomes a juggernaut. The most human and natural response of outrage to multiple outrages and injustices is well-expressed in the writing and well-dramatised by the formidable Ivanno Jeremiah. There are, perhaps, certain stilted dimensions of homage in the production’s structure but, at its heart, Ryan Calais Cameron has located a crucial and dramatic story filled with truth and emotion.

4 stars

Review by Mary Beer

‘Mr Parks, this isn’t just a movie, it’s a whole movement. Whether you like it or not is irrelevant.’

The Golden Age of Hollywood. Behind closed doors, aspiring actor Sidney Poitier is offered a lucrative contract that could make him a superstar. But what is he willing to sacrifice?

From the writer of award-winning, sold-out, For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Hue Gets Too Heavy, Ryan Calais Cameron’s explosive new play explores identity, resilience, and integrity as it examines a true event in 1950’s Hollywood and the reality of a Black actor’s journey to stardom.

Directed by Kiln Associate Director Amit Sharma (The Boy with Two Hearts), this world premiere explores a moment in a career that paved ways and changed perceptions, cementing the legacy of a Hollywood icon. Retrograde asks the question; how much have we really evolved?

26 Apr – 27 May 2023

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  • Mary Beer

    Mary graduated with a cum laude degree in Theatre from Columbia University’s Barnard College in New York City. In addition to directing and stage managing several productions off-Broadway, Mary was awarded the Helen Prince Memorial Prize in Dramatic Composition for her play Subway Fare whilst in New York. Relocating to London, Mary has worked in the creative sector, mostly in television broadcast and production, since 1998. Her creative and strategic abilities in TV promotion, marketing and design have been recognised with over 20 industry awards including several Global Promax Golds. She is a founder member of multiple creative industry and arts organisations and has frequently served as an advisor to the Edinburgh International TV Festival.

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