Ryan Calais Cameron
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With For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Hue Gets Too Heavy running in the West End, Ryan Calais Cameron scores again with his new play Retrograde, 90-minutes of real-time drama much more formally presented. It is set in the office of Hollywood lawyer Larry Parks in the 1950s where he and screenwriter Robert Alan Arthur (Bobby) are awaiting the arrival of Sidney Poitier to sign a contract for an NBC TV drama. His performance in Blackboard Jungle has woken Hollywood up to his talent and charisma.
Poitier is late, but meanwhile, Bobby signs his own contract. He is Poitier’s friend and a supporter of the campaign for civil rights, but this contract is as big a break for him as it will be for Sidney, so he is busy exchanging banter with Mr Parks as they knock back the whisky. Ian Bonar’s Bobby doesn’t want to rock the boat at this critical moment despite the put-downs from Mr Park (Daniel Lapaine).
Parks carries on in the same vein when Sidney arrives until he has got rid of Bobby, then there is a distinct change as the jokey, rude man gets more didactic. He has got Sidney there not just to sign to act in a TV drama but wants much more from him. This is the time of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Someone has been feeding Park information about Poitier and friendship with people like Harry Belafonte. He wants a loyalty statement and then to make a broadcast fingering Sidney’s hero Paul Robeson as anti-American.
It is not just an NBC contract that is at risk if he doesn’t agree; there’s a threat of a subpoena to face the HUAC. Will Sidney sign and follows Mr Parks’s plan?
Bonar and Lapaine are playing characters who don’t really listen, Bobby scared in case he puts a foot wrong, Parks riding roughshod. They represent weak liberal and assertive reactionary, though the actors give them a theatrical reality.
Ivanno Jeremiah’s Sidney Poitier is given much more to explore and delivers a much more detailed performance from the polite actor coming into the office expecting to get back to his wife and the café that keeps them going between acting work. He is uncomfortable and tries to fit in, baffled at what’s going on, and then rises magnificently to the challenge that he faces. Here, a well-written role gets a subtle but powerful performance.
Amit Sharma’s production has a focus and intensity that match Jeremiah’s performance. Its first night standing ovation was well earned.
With both Poitier and Belafonte recently lost to us, this is a welcome reminder of their part in the movement for human rights and what they had to face in their careers as black performers. Sadly, 70 years later, this isn’t just a picture of the past; there are too many contemporary parallels.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton