Friday 5th May, 2017, at Leeds Carriageworks Theatre.
Gazebo’s ‘Sorry! No Coloureds, No Irish, No Dogs’ is an important piece of theatre which not only spotlights some of the important black historical figures and role models that we should know about, but it pummels a modern audience with disturbing resonance in today’s socio-political climate. It comes across as a bit of a rough diamond in places, particularly early on, but this is undoubtedly a production of significant educational worth and cultural importance. The premise? Two strangers attending a protest march find themselves in a room of suitcases and artefacts. There’s something not quite right about that room and the mysterious presence of some of the contents of it- a mystery solved by the dramatic close of the play. Also unsettling is that the room appears able to thrust our protagonists into snippets of the lives of key important historical figures; black role models who have prejudicially been left out of the histories taught in schools and the ‘common knowledge’ we have about so much other, lesser information. Much like John Agard’s poem, ‘Dem Tell Me’, which has so many parallels with ‘Sorry!’, this production raises important questions about inclusivity and the frustrations of a modern world remaining so damagingly tunnel-visioned.
It’s a slow burner to start, as the early scenes seem drawn out and overly static but the pace quickly improves as we are taken through 400-odd years of history depicting the outrageous racism and marginalisation of minorities. I’m not sure why the early scenes lacked the polish of those coming later, but I think there’s great potential for this to be even more powerful with a little more consistency across the piece. There is more prominence of extended speeches early on and I think it’s a delicate balance to provide crucial facts and information without creating the impression of a lecture – so on reflection, perhaps those early scenes didn’t quite find that balance. Pamela Cole-Hudson’s writing finds a better balance across the piece as a whole; while depicting so many lives fleetingly could feel lacking in terms of a central focus, there are scenes in which the two characters share stories from their own lives, providing softer moments and insights of a more domestic, personal nature in contrast to the more removed impressions of the historical figures. Hearing that Mary Seacole was Symone’s role model as a child, seeing her excitement as she dressed up as this obscure heroine, was very sweet yet poignant. It wasn’t a modern, powerful music star, it was a long-dead but very important role model from another time – someone who had the strength and the qualities every young girl should aspire to; subtly highlighting the value of more young people looking to history rather than TV for their childhood heroes.
The quality of performances from Tonia Daley-Campbell and Oraine Johnson was undoubtedly impressive; carrying this epic journey through history as a two-hander with skilled multi-rolling is no easy feat. Their ability with dramatic scenes was well matched by their moments of humour, dancing and brilliantly sustained (for the most part) changing accents, with swift change-overs. The fiery indignation of Daley-Campbell as Symone is explosive and a vital strength of the production; both characters have a passion for the histories of their ancestors yet they clash over what they feel is necessary to hold on to as citizens in 2017. Symone’s passionate tirades about slavery raise debate between the two about whether or not it is time to move on and focus on more hopeful figures who did big things in their time despite their poor treatment. It includes important commentary on the creation of race as a concept and why race became an issue by design, in the name of control and governance. There’s a lot to learn here and the damning lessons are delivered well through the characters and the figures of Mary Seacole, Walter Tull, Obi Egbuna andQueen Nanny of The Maroons among others. Through the portrayal of a wide array of black historical figures, they each learn about people they had not previously heard of and they in turn learn that each history of each individual is worth preserving and spotlighting – as do we.
Some scenes are undoubtedly uncomfortable to watch. There is an abundance of physical violence inflicted by invisible hands, and the strength of the performers shone the brightest as they viscerally depicted being whipped, shot and beaten – at one point I simultaneously flinched and jumped in my seat as Johnson convinced us of his brutal torture. I think that speaks volumes about the quality of the writing, the direction and the performances; if the audience feel enough to feel uncomfortable about what they are seeing and hearing, you have a piece of theatre which is both powerful and resonant. I think the skilful physicality of the actors allowed them to splinter both nerves and hearts in that audience – it’s tough to watch pain, but it certainly made key scenes incredibly powerful.
I have only one strong criticism about ‘Sorry!’ which may or may not be a misunderstanding of the directorial intentions from Pamela Cole-Hudson. The first scene our modern characters find themselves thrust into is terrifying and portrays them suddenly experiencing life on a slave ship first-hand, in all its horror. The pair had conjured up the hideous setting of a slave ship with nothing more than a sound recording, mime and skilful performance. A sudden interjection of jarring, comic strip/ slapstick sound track then underscores the uprising of slaves amidst chaos and death. That incongruous choice of music bothered me because not only did it break the illusion, but I felt that it undermined the power and disturbing intensity of the scene as a whole, and that’s such a frustrating thing to see just when you’re thoroughly gripped!
What this production does do so well is that it educates about both the past and the present; it demands that we recognise and condemn the abusive, racist treatment of those important figures who are often forgotten, as well as demanding that we recognise and challenge the close resemblance forming in the here and now. As the history meets the present with a gripping, hideous parallel between the 1950s and now, we are reminded of the current crisis of acceptance and respect in the here and now; we hear a medley of sounds from history, of Tamir Rice and snippets of Trump’s hate speech. As we see past and present performed side by side under spotlights, we see that just as history repeats in various forms, the present is dangerously teetering on the brink of doing so again. Cleverly woven, well written and performed with power and grit, ‘Sorry! No Coloureds, No Irish, No Dogs’ is an important piece of theatre well worth seeing.