Leave Taking at the Bush Theatre was my second theatre show viewing in over 14 years. A field alien to my culture which is the youthful yet enigmatic African diaspora that is building history by existing at this point. This culture recognises Black Britishness as a britremming idea with fragments of our gradually uniting talents and history for fronting a new wave of pride. In recent years many projects have been created that prick at similar notions within the diaspora. Such as the social realism aspects of Get Out exemplified through an outstanding performance by Daniel Kaluuya. A thriller veiled as a comedic horror, which can be perceived differently by identity. The excellence and importance of Lupita Nyong’o’s acclaim, her grand talent and celestial essence immovable by colourism’s stigma. In totality, these cultural products have forged a greater narrative which is weaving into natural relevance. Every piece to this diasporic puzzle is significant, as we are building a picture of a muted reality phasing through British History.
Leave Taking is another piece to this picture stemming from 1987, written by a young Winsome Pinnock who is hailed as the Godmother of Black British playwrights. Such a title is immense though I have never been entitled to offer my two pence until now. I have always felt at a loss not being rocked by the motivation preceding Black British creatives could inspire. The break in the lineage of Black work, the interests curbed by my upbringing and an insidious lack of insight to Blackness shed by our education system. Emotive fires that burned within Winsome when she created Leave Taking is only outmoded by time. The relevance within Leave Taking, as a result, is sublime, grasping at the concepts of soul-sick cries and purely reasoning why-why the dullness of this grand land overrides the passions of home and a sown identity.
Having returned from a 30-year absence from theatres Leave Taking still holds a worrying though comforting relevance. It is worrying due to a lack of recognition, halfway into the play I imagined this should be immortalised. It starts with a worried Jamaican family from the estate of Deptford attempting to use the spiritual prowess of an Obeah called Mai (played by Adjoa Andoh). Her peculiar fashion and mystical trinkets cast a familiar sense of wonder that elders respect yet 2nd generation question the reality of such procedures. Enid (played by Sarah Niles) is a Mother of two, Del (Seraphina Beh) & Viv (Nicholle Cherrie), visiting Mai for her understanding via palm readings. Mai is eccentric, sharp and displaying a fearsome tenacity for her job which appeared weird to the sunken Del and Viv, who stick to slick British gums. I imagined Enid & Mai’s accents were too thick to understand for many of the audience, but it is this unfiltered display which is a necessity that should not be intimidating – but normalised via representation. It also highlighted a break in-between culture, where patterns of behaviour and perception clashed. Enid’s worry for Del’s outwardly self-destructive behaviour causes her to reach out to Mai for spiritual guidance. From the beginning, the clash between the generations causes a constant reflective dialogue that depicts the harshness of a checkered reality diaspora live.
When Brod, a family friend (Will Johnson), enters the scenery is built when he alludes to the totality of this livelihood. He carries a swagger and coolness many Jamaican men are hailed for, though his character depicts many cold and warm notions. He is profoundly vocal, offering a perception of the state of things in this Britain when they traveled here. How Caledonian Road was supposed to be painted in Gold. The work ethic of a selfless Enid immensely hard working from the glorious old days. Jamaican tales and folklore, describing the powers that rest within these children’s Black skin. Such talk invigorated Viv, the book smart daughter who can recite the marvels of Shakespeare. She glows with anticipation of home, having been sold a lifelong dream of being merely British. Her work did not represent herself, yet her self is even foreign to the territory she would consider home. Brod’s wonder had grown on her, with Enid’s fear amounting to serious doubts for her own being. Del’s behaviour peaks and it leaks through disrespectful actions, as a result, she receives a fraction of the anger Enid has stored. The falling out boils this compilation of ideas many within the diaspora can relate to. The contrasts are brilliantly chilling, amounted in such a story it allowed me to perceive my own journey better.
The religiousness of Enid in contrast to her faith in Mai is an interesting dynamic. As if at a loss, the older ways pave the way to comfort over simple prayer. The perception of work by generations as well as what it means to have a good life. The understanding and meaning behind the journey, from “home” to opportune England. Though in summary, soul sickness is the main concept of Leave Taking. How Enid’s purpose is challenged by the altering livelihoods of her children, despite working so hard to maintain a good lifestyle for them. How Brod’s battle with alcoholism belittles his wisdom which masks revealing truths. How Del’s extravagance and longingness for freedom override empathy. How Viv’s cultivated mind only shines on English soil, foiling her urge for a stronger sense of identity. Mai is gradually demystified but also catches the disease of self-reflection, growing an affection for this troubled family. Key moments within the play instilled a heartfelt empathy within me. The brilliant display of these characters and an insightful story was backed by a lack of representation or rather understanding. This phenomenon of Black representation, often overshadowed by an African American weight, lays waste to the norms of our own stories. Hence watching Leave Taking felt tremendous and rightly timed, for it presents its audience with a perception of 80s worries and infiltrates patterns exacted in recent times.
An aspect I admire born from this dearth of representation is the importance such actors and creators exemplify through their work. A Q&A after the show solidified by adoration for Leave Taking, chaired by the director Madani Younis, as it managed to inject the feelings and views of the actors and Winsome herself. Winsome spoke of her humbleness regarding the response to the project, the fantastic cast offered their understanding of Leave Taking. Will Johnson who played Brod spoke on the workings of his character stemming from his own experiences. He stated it had been a while since he purely acted on a project that was entirely Black, with notes taken from remembering family and their attitudes toward life. He describes his character as pieced together by 3 influential Uncles, the hilarity fused with a woke Afrocentric take on life topped off by the hindrances he demonstrates. Hence acting felt natural as opposed to performative, despite his tremendous skills which captivated me. Earnest moments in the play such as Brod unfolding behaviours which caused the state of things offered a tremendous insight into how people perceived things then. The pride in which they left Jamaica for a “better life” to be presented with soul sickness, racism, and belittlement at existing. Enid is a commanding character, Sarah Niles portrayed her with fantastic quirks adopted by her recognition of her Black Heroes. She pointed toward Black Panther and the incredible reaction it received, happy though grieved the romanticised idea of us. Sarah stated the everyday heroes, such as her character Enid, deserve gratitude for their sacrifices. Her portrayal gave me shades of my Mother, as Enid is a cleaner and my Mother came to this country as one. Sacrificing years to bring up children, diving back into a career and education to provide for her family more. Drawn back home but tied to a new state, to help pave a way to a greater life.
Seraphina Beh is a wonderful actress, igniting life with Del smoothly without a care in the World. Her comments in the Q&A highlighted how she didn’t even know who Winsome Pinnock was – shamefully but gratefully managed to work on this wonderful tale. Her performance hails the relation Black Britishness shares, diaspora fairly has a similar account. Hence, she announced the importance if such a work, how it is a necessity to show our realities. The fact Leave Taking holds excessive relevance today shows this. Similar stories of wantaway children, who suffer from the demand of their parents who came almost from nothing. Nicholle Cherie who plays Viv also relates, her educational expertise praised but grounded on an identity she doesn’t find to be her own. She also felt right for this character as it spoke volumes for her own path. Another demand most Parents make of their children from the diaspora, educational success or at least the capacity of it. Though it doesn’t allow one to explore life with the freedom someone “native” to Britain has, with ages of generational wealth building comfort and providing space for different ambitions. Del’s growth is built on empathising through other experiences, triggered by time spent with Mai and a sobering Brod. Viv’s growth is more subtle, reasonable and about the changes everyone around her makes – in a sense, the youngest is at the brunt of everyone’s behaviours. Nicholle champions this very well, displaying an innocence and eagerness to break the duck. Lastly, Adjoa Andoh’s act as Mai was trancing. A prodigious accent and sweet tonality made me hang on every word. Her role felt a therapist, an interesting idea for mental health within such communities tend to be downplayed. In need of spiritual healing, religiousness, as well as divine techniques like Mai’s palm reading, offer a solace in madness’ midst.
Leave Taking is in Bush Theatre until 30th June, it is a must-see play that displays a Jamaican home and the roles the family play in their bid for soul searching and healing.