Review: THE GIFT

IN BRIEF Smartly-constructed play about modern Black British experience is provocative and angry as well as very funny, with strong cast and direction

Janice Okoh’s play THE GIFT describes itself as “an outrageous play about imperialism, cross-racial adoption, cultural appropriation…and tea”. And outrageous is certainly the word for this disturbing, searing and intermittently hilarious observation of what it is to be a black British person today. It highlights the rage, shame and guilt at the outrages of Britain’s imperial past which still run as open wounds through our society. As one Sarah says to the other. “They can never understand something they’ve never experienced”

Against an elegant whitewashed set, each of the play’s three acts are set in different times – 1862, the present, and finally a hybrid of the two, as Okoh tantalisingly allows us a “what if?” moment to rewind and rewrite history. It is a smartly constructed, cleverly written and intriguing play which is not only timely but also timeless.

Set in England, far enough away from the horrors of imperialistic force, in 1862 we meet the first “gift”, a young black African woman Sarah, who was given as a gift to Queen Victoria. Suitably schooled in the arrogance of British ways, she is on the verge of returning to Africa to educate “the natives” about how to be British, blindly complicit in the subjugation of her fellow countryfolk.

More perverse, as Sarah’s “experiment”, she has been educating Cockney maid Aggie in the ways of holding a successful tea party. The unexpected tea party she is obliged to hold contains business talk from the men and “civilised” conversation from the ladies. Aggie brings much fun as the nervous maid, the only genuine character amongst this stiff tableau, and the audience warms to her twitchy authenticity.

Act Two is set in modern day and recounts an awkward neighbours’ visit in which Sarah 2020 and James, the black parents of an adopted white child, are forced to endure the ingrained racism of their white neighbours who bring them a “gift” of muffins with an ulterior motive. Although we and the characters laugh at the neighbours’ desperately feigned openness, they still have the ability to revive deep hurt and historic damage, expressed so eloquently by Sarah at the conclusion of this act.

Act Three brings it all together, in a bold shredding of time, where Sarah 2020 and Sarah 1862 are at tea with Queen Victoria. The informing of modern Sarah to Sarah 1862 brings pent up feelings of ferocity which lead to a surprising conclusion and a genuine “what if?” moment.

Bringing the present to bear fully upon the past is an exciting and intriguing idea, and Okoh pulls it off with flair. The cast and direction (from Dawn Walton) are first-rate. Donna Berlin gives not one but two excellent performances (after her accomplished CHASING RAINBOWS last summer), firstly as the jumpy and engagingly down-to-earth maid Aggie, and secondly as 2020 Sarah, a professional who endures and then mocks the twistedly prejudiced neighbours who come to call. Her journey from mockery to dismay is insightful and affecting, as the legacy of the visit causes old feelings to strip her of layers of normality. Movingly it is 2020 Sarah who in the third act encourages 1862 Sarah to fight back, to not be cowed, to stand up for herself. With passionate speeches full of anger and retribution, Berlin’s 2020 Sarah is an effective enabler.

Shannon Hayes as the 1862 Sarah plays with dignity, assurance – and complicity. Only when challenged by the modern Sarah does she start to awaken, to question and achieve realisation that her submission has been imposed and that she has been complicit in her own subjugation. Two sets of feelings- gratitude and awakening horror, all of which Hayes plays with a sureness which is highly watchable.

Although at times a little over-extended, THE GIFT has punch and power, and the joyously multicultural audience I saw this with ooh-ed and aah-ed at every twist, a lovely sign of a real connection with its audience.

THE GIFT plays at the Theare Royal Stratford East until February 15th. Tickets and information here.

THE GIFT then tours to Oxford (21/22 Feb), Bury St Edmunds (27-29 Feb), Southampton (3-7 March) and Scarborough (10-11 March).

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