The Theatreguide.London Review
Cottesloe Theatre Winter 2004-2005
Kwame Kwei-Armah's new play resembles his earlier Elmina's Kitchen in milieu and tone, though it represents a strong step forward in depth and psychological complexity for this important new writer.
In a predominantly Afro-Carribean neighbourhood in north London, the dreadlocked Kiyi runs a Black history bookshop.
Frequenting the store are a diverse collection of figures - old friend Norma, making a belated entry into local politics; young activist Kwesi, planning the revolution in a borrowed room upstairs; and Carl, the barely literate ex-junkie Kiyi has taken in.
Kiyi actually lends out more books than he sells, and reads more than he lends out, in his unending search to understand, and help others to understand the black experience.
But one day a new customer actually wanders in, the schoolteacher Alice who is, as she puts it in her politically correct terms, 'of divided cultural heritage' and looking to learn more about the black half of her identity.
Inevitably, sexual tensions are generated but, much more interestingly the fresh and fast-thinking new mind - Alice can debate from fervent black power, feminist or sceptical positions, often in a single sentence - invigorates everyone and brings the sleepy place alive.
There are a couple of plot lines, one built on the fact that the bookshop is going to be evicted to make room, ironically, for a store selling hair-straightening products, and the other on some personal revelations.
Eventually some betrayals, past and present, are exposed, and - in the weakest moments of the play - things briefly get a bit soap opera-ish.
But the power of the play lies in areas other than the plot, in the natural opportunity it gives for different facets of what it means to be black to be both discussed and paraded before us, and both the immense value and the dangers of looking to the past for self-definition are dramatised.
Even more important, though, is the love the author has for his characters and their sometimes quixotic attempts at self-definition.
The play is infused with warmth, and unable to bring itself to reject even the betrayers it discovers. And in making us see and share this embrace, the play teaches us more about the black experience than all the books in Kiyi's shop ever could.
Director Angus Jackson understands that the play is about character and mood more than story, and creates a sense of warm reality.
Jeffery Kissoon invests Kiyi with a dignity and an air of carrying some unspoken burden that will be explained only at play's end, while Nina Sosanya makes Alice real and sympathetic when she could easily have been just a plot device.
Bunny Christie's bookstore set is enough to make any bibliophile tremble with the desire to get up there and browse.
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