Janice Okoh’s latest play, The Gift, truly was a gift to all those in the audience. Though the script was hard to follow at times, this play focused on sending a message rather than having a perfectly understandable dialogue, and at this, it succeeded.
The Gift is a play set in England, 1862, beginning in Brighton with Queen Victoria’s (Joanna Brookes) ‘gift’ Sarah Forbes Bonetta (Shannon Hayes). Here we are invited to laugh with Aggie (Donna Berlin), the clumsy maid-in-training, and feel for Sarah as her move to Africa becomes a discussion full of racism. Despite everyone telling Sarah that this move will suit her well, the crazy Harriet Waller (Joanna Brookes) is persistent she would never go, fearing the “savages” in Africa that wanted to eat Sarah before her white saviour rescued and gifted her to the queen. As all seems to become too much for Sarah, we are transported to modern-day Cheshire, after laughing with Aggie’s when, uncharacteristically being waited on by Sarah and her mother, she jokes “ain’t I meant to have a side plate?”.
Once transported, we soon learn that in the two centuries that have passed, racism is still just as prevalent. Sarah (Donna Berlin) and husband James (Dave Fishley) is greeted by some unusual neighbours, Ben (Richard Teverson) and Harriet (Rebecca Charles). With ever-rising tensions, Harriet being overly-PC insisting on using words such as “BAME” instead of “black”, and Ben becoming more-and-more uncomfortable, we learn that they are the ones who called the police on Sarah and James, fearing their white daughter was in danger and wasn’t theirs. To break up the conflict, we were given moments of humour, such as Harriet dancing to Rihanna’s work, after insisting “I was told once I danced like a BAME woman… I was told I was ‘earthy’”. Other side comments included the wide-spread myth that “black people can’t swim”, Harriet expressing a common belief that they choose not to “because of their hair”. Though some of these moments were intended to be humorous, the predominantly-white audience also seemed to find humour in moments that were meant to be educational or thought-provoking. For instance, when Sarah claims “I’d call myself a white person”, Ben insisting that this is impossible, and the audience finding humour in such a suggestion. However, as Sarah continues to explain, she states all her influences, cultural behaviours and friends are white, and that her skin colour does not define how she should act or be placed in society. This comment was subtlety aided by staging, with the living-room setting painted all-white, but the outside door of the house black – implying that skin colour does not define feelings or cultural identification.
In a moment of emotional turmoil, the one-note horror-sounding tune plays over the conversation, Sarah freezing and dissociating just as Victoria’s Sarah did when racial tension grew. Sarah, now alone in the living room, wept and stripped bare naked, taking off even her wig, and exiting the stage into a German Expressionist styled background prop. This moment symbolised her shellshock at the casual racism just faced by their new neighbours and finalised the first act.
Though the first half of this play rested a lot on symbolism, implied meaning and interpretation, the second half was far more fast-paced and verbally explicit in critiquing racism. Both Sarah’s meet queen Victoria for a tea-party, as modern-day Sarah acts as a voice that only the other Sarah can see. In an intense, very quickly paced second half, Sarah tells Aina (Sarah’s name pre-Victoria) that imperialism, colonialism, and many of the racial behaviours that Queen Victoria’s reign implemented will continue for centuries to come. As Victoria tells Aina that her tuberculosis is just her “turning native”, and Sarah that Victoria does not love her, as you cannot love what you fear, we see Aina reach the breaking point. In this very impactful monologue, Sarah states lines such as “throughout the years we are seen as someone who cannot save ourselves, who cannot exist without the whites, but that’s not true”, which are both very moving and insightful into the experiences of black people even today. Finally, we see Aina kill Victoria with a spear, Sarah stating the final words as she explains she does not know what will come next, but “history has to be better than what happened now”.
Thankfully, the audience did not laugh at these closing moments, though it has to be said there was some subconscious racism prevalent in the theatre, as shown through earlier laughter, that I hope the end of this play diminished. The Gift was an excellent play whose impact will not soon be forgotten. The cast, particularly Donna Berlin, made for a memorable and moving experience. But the writing, full of tension, conflict, tactics and humour, is what truly made this play.
The Gift is showing at NST City until March 7th.