Boi Boi is Dead

Zodwa Nyoni
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Tiata Fahodzi & Watford Palace Theatre
Courtyard Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse

Boi Boi is Dead is a new play by Zodwa Nyoni. She has clearly benefited from an assortment of West Yorkshire Playhouse and Leeds University schemes, culminating in a Chanel Four year long residency at West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Boi Boi is Dead is a very accomplished piece of writing. It speaks highly of Nyoni’s talent and promise, and the Playhouse’s commitment to the development of new writing and new writers.

The play visits age old themes of inheritance, in terms of real estate and talent, and familial conflict. Set in an African state it tells of the consequence of Boi Boi’s death. Boi Boi (Jack Benjamin) was an iconic trumpeter who left his wife, Stella (Lynett Clarke), in favour of Miriam (Angela Wynter).

\Miriam has a son, Petu (Joseph Adelakun), from an earlier relationship, and is raising Stella’s daughter Una (Debbie Korley). And Boi Boi has a brother, Ezra (Andrew French), who is domiciled in England but whose household is Zimbabwean.

These then are the characters that Nyoni sets in motion. The play is exceptionally well plotted with numerous twists and turns and subplots. It has a wonderful narrative texture and visits emotional highs and lows, pain, confusion, and comedy. Lucian Msamati’s direction is first class, with the exception of Stella’s histrionics, a little overdone for my taste.

The set (Francisco Rodriguez-Weil) and lighting (Emma Chapman) work together to beautiful and dramatic effect. A huge orange sky is a backdrop to Boi Boi’s first appearance. He seems to be very nearly contained by this sky, not quite silhouetted, as he plays trumpet.

Stylised furniture and a dog are silhouetted and can be lowered onto the stage as needed. Upstage is a row of multifunctional boxes, as if a banking, which can contain props and themselves become props. An adventurous and admirable set which is used to good effect. All in all, a first class production.

I had one reservation: for some reason Msamati has his cast moving into what seems like endless stylised moving about (or is it slow motion dance?). It’s paint drying stuff that really does get in the way of the play.

However, this flaw is far more than compensated for by one, startling, electrifying moment. Throughout the play, I had admired the acting in general and the work of Debbie Korley in particular.

Una is a young teenage girl. The character is brilliantly scripted by Nyoni, equally well directed, and superbly caught by Korley. In an astonishing coup de theatre, Una sings. We have no idea what or how well she will sing. She is, after all the daughter of a great musician and Stella, herself an entertainer and singer. But she is also a teenager with dreams, and, sadly, we know what happens to most teenage dreams.

When she sings... she brings the house down. It is wonderful. And so strong is the actual and symbolic impact of her performance that the packed house was stunned into silence. An audience pregnant with an emotional reaction, just one seeding clap would have brought the house down. Such confidence from Msamati, he allows a prolonged silence. And we sat in a great big, sticky tension that can only be achieved in live performance.

Boi Boi is Dead is worth seeing just for this unforgettable moment alone, but it is a splendid evening in the theatre as well.

Reviewer: Ray Brown