The Book of Grace

Suzan-Lori Parks
Arcola Theatre
Arcola Theatre

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Grace (Ellena Vincent) Credit: Alex Brenner
Buddy (Daniel Francis-Swaby) and Vet (Peter De Jersey) Credit: Alex Brenner
Vet (Peter De Jersey) Credit: Alex Brenner

We are all the children of generations of migrants, but that doesn’t stop politicians from banging the drum of warning about borders being breached and our lives being threatened by dangerous hoards.

The horrific consequences of such prejudice are conjured up in the stark Southern Gothic play The Book of Grace, in which the US Texas-Mexico border guard Vet insists the terrible logic of barriers to the “aliens” need to be extended into “your own home... in your own blood”.

The show opens with him digging a grave as he details his job guarding the nation’s border, something he can watch even from his home. It’s a job that has earned him an award for detaining migrants found in a vehicle sitting on a pile of marijuana. He insists the “honest migrant is an oxymoron.”

The scene switches to his son, Buddy, a former military man, returning after fifteen years to attend his dad's award ceremony, speaking from the back of one side of the audience about the “unspeakable” things his father did to him. In a bag, he secretly carries a pack of grenades.

His return has been encouraged by Grace (Ellena Vincent), the current partner to Vet and a remarkably optimistic woman who hides beneath the floor of the house her book of Grace, a collection of positive thoughts and images about life. Buddy (Daniel Francis-Swaby) fondly remembers being aged ten and sitting on the porch with Grace.

There is a naturalistic rhythm to the characters' speech, but their manner is shaped by the ferocious paranoia of Vet, whom Peter De Jersey gives such intense nervous energy that almost every word and every action seems to teeter on the edge of an explosion.

The impressive direction of Femi Elufowoju Jr along with a fine, confident cast and shifts in the lighting give an ominous, dreamlike feel to the action which always seems to be edging towards violence.

The characters are intentionally narrowed to a few characteristics in which we are sympathetic to the warm, naïve optimism of Grace but feel ambiguous about Buddy, troubled as he is by childhood abuse and knowledge of his father's cruel treatment of his mother who died years before. One moment he is denouncing Vet for having failed him in “three strikes” and the next moment wanting to be like him and even adopting the name “snake” used by his father.

None of the characters or what takes place feel entirely realistic but, like in a strange nightmare, are believable as a frightening metaphor of a nation whose cruelty to migrants infects the way it treats its population, who reproduce that violence in their own families, particularly against women and children.

I can’t have been the only member of the audience who mentally cheered when a much-abused Grace defiantly says to Vet, “fuck you”, but it’s not enough. Domestic and national violence will continue till we change the society that creates monsters like Vet.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna

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