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).


CHASING RAINBOWS at Hoxton Hall. Thursdays to Saturdays until July 20th. Information and tickets here

IN BRIEF Compassionate and poetic play about the tensions of modern motherhood given strong voice by a fine central performance

CHASING RAINBOWS is the uplifting, deeply human and inspiring story of Ama Baptiste – the first black woman astronaut. High above the Earth, alone in the space station, she records segments of an address for her daughter’s high school graduation class of 2019. Except that her daughter doesn’t want her to do it.

This is a story of the tensions of contemporary mothers, endlessly trying to square the circle of doing what is best for their children, whilst not losing sight of their own aspirations.

Video recorded answers to written questions from the graduates punctuate Ama’s relating of her life journey, interspersed with conversations – past and imagined -between Ama and her daughter Sola.

She tells of her struggle to excel and succeed. Battling the self-limiting beliefs of her native West Indian community – from the religious mother exhorting only prayer and churchgoing, to the bricklayer husband who calls her aspirations “stupidness”, as well as the injustice of sex inequality (“If I had a cock no-one would question my motives”). She forges ahead to make her mark upon the world, making plans to share that with her young daughter. However, “Nine years and a rocket full of tears” later, Ama is in space and her daughter is graduating. Time has created its own kind of non-geographical distance. And Sola has her own news for her Mother, too.

Lack of understanding leads to self-doubt and self-blame. “Is that why you left, ‘cause I’m stupid?” says Sola. Ama describes her own relationship with her Mother as difficult, echoed in affecting moments of reaching for understanding with Sola- and missing, making them all the more poignant.

Guilt, sadness, regret and yearning all play their part in the feelings which dart across Ama’s face and through her mind. An engaging, genuinely touching and authentic portrayal by Donna Berlin as Ama (attached to a flying rope) holds the stage, enhanced by the late appearance of Emmanuella Toure playing daughter Sola.

Ama’s final decision to record the speech in spite of her daughter’s protests validates herself and is an emotionally liberating moment which was felt through the audience, who gave a warm and enthusiastic reception to this affecting and sincere hour of feminist theatre. “I had to sing my own song”, she says, “I own this story”. And we applaud her for doing so.

OneNess Sankara’s verse-woven script flows well, without pretence,  and often makes it possible to really enjoy the use of language. Karena Johnson’s sensitive and compassionate direction allow the words to breathe and the performances to rise.

The use of flying gives a partial freedom from gravity and Berlin is confident in its use, but I do wonder if more might have been made of that element of the show: but it is nevertheless interesting in its contradiction as an expression of both liberation and confinement.

As a play, CHASING RAINBOWS offers no solutions, excepting the advice shared to the graduates by Ama herself when asked what the three most important qualities are in life “Respect, forgiveness and patience”. Qualities we could all do with more of. But the play is valuable in allowing us to empathise with modern mothers, and to remember that they, like us, are just doing the best they can.

CHASING RAINBOWS plays at Hoxton Hall on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays until July 20th. Information and tickets here