Race Relations: The Fellowship at Hampstead Theatre London

Cherrelle Skeete and Suzette Llewellyn, Image Hampstead Theatre
Cherrelle Skeete and Suzette Llewellyn. Image Hampstead Theatre

The Fellowship

From: 21 Jun 2022

To: 23 Jul 2022

Hampstead Theatre
Eton Avenue
Swiss Cottage

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‘Maya Angelou is overrated!’ ‘Idris Elba should not be the next James Bond!’ ‘La La Land deserved to win the Oscar!’

Two hours pass before Dawn can publicly admit her beliefs, all contradictions to her own inherent idea of ‘Blackness’. Her defiant speech is The Fellowship’s crescendo, eliciting finger snaps and howls of laughter from the audience. (They’re already buoyant, savouring the rare delight of seeing such viewpoints represented on stage).

The Fellowship is simply a drama about family relationships. After coming of age together in 1980s London, sisters Dawn (Cherrelle Skeete) and Marcia Adams (Suzette Llewellyn) find themselves today with little in common beyond blood. Left to care for their dying mother, cope with the grief of her murdered son, Daryl, and her increasingly distant son, Jermaine (Ethan Hazzard), Dawn finds herself emotionally estranged in her own home.

Their love, like The Fellowship’s core themes, is rather more unspoken and implicit. The production’s most powerful moment comes when the stage is left uncomfortably empty, abandoned of loud family life. We are left to sit, for slightly too long, with nothing but Take That, a selection from Dawn’s kitchen playlist – and sign of her ‘white’ taste in music. 

Rooted in the experiences of the Windrush generation, The Fellowship is perhaps a historical precursor to playwright Roy Williams’ more contemporary Death of England productions. Similarly award-winning, the cast and production crew boast credits across everything from the celebrated Small Island and The 47th, to the 2012 London Olympic Games’ opening ceremony.

Cherrelle Skeete and Suzette Llewellyn, Image Hampstead Theatre
Cherrelle Skeete and Suzette Llewellyn, Image Hampstead Theatre

The women carry this production, Skeete deserving particular praise for standing in at the last minute. Her A4 script, rarely referenced, never distracts from her energetic, physical performance. 

Williams’ warm humour is embedded with the effects of everyday, systemic racism, and the family member’s varied internal contradictions. For Dawn, being Black is to perform the stereotypes of being aggressive – even militant – but in director Paulette Randall’s hands, we see these tropes as defence mechanisms, used to cope with her role as the long-suffering, dependable core of the family. 

‘Not everything’s about race’, Marcia proclaims, whilst lecturing how it falls upon Black people to assert themselves in white spaces. The barrister talks first, before others can assume she is the criminal defendant in the courtroom. Selectively ignoring both racial and gender inequalities, she readily sacrifices her own career for that of her white male love interest, a politician caught partying too hard. Sound familiar? 

Yasmin Mwanza and Cherrelle Skeete, Image Hampstead Theatre
Yasmin Mwanza and Cherrelle Skeete, Image Hampstead Theatre

At other times, she’s a force to be reckoned with. ‘Am I a mirage?’, she proclaims, transforming into the Black Auntie before Jermaine’s eyes. She second-guesses her nephew’s efforts to lie about who he’s off to see that night, identifying the name invented from his surroundings (‘LOOM’, after the IKEA mugs, sat atop the counter). Her sleuthdom comes from experience, the offender-turned-detective having called on ‘Mr. Clark’ as a teenager, catching sight of her father’s shoes in the hallway.

In her array of fabulous silk shirts, Marcia’s character is one case of shadism (discrimination based on skin colour) tackled with great nuance. The cast flow seamlessly between accents depending on their speech and setting. Many react with horror at the sight of a Black policewoman, a betrayer of her community. Tony (Trever Laird), seemingly unshaken in his support for his ‘brothers’, cannot deny his individual vanity, distinguishing himself from the big-bellied patrons of the local chicken shop. 

We also see the gaze inverted. White people are blanketed as born with a silver (sugar) spoon in their mouths, presumably to be used for stirring trouble. Playing up a ‘white trash’ blaccent, Rosie Day as Simone (Jermaine’s on-off girlfriend) makes an exaggerated effort to expose the intersection between racial and socioeconomic injustice.

Rosie Day and Ethan Hazzard, Hampstead Theatre
Rosie Day and Ethan Hazzard, Hampstead Theatre

There’s some overacting, and the pacing in the second half doesn’t quite match up to the first. The futuristic set design, a kind of hourglass-come-spaceship, seems disconnected from the play’s everyday context, useful only for the odd reference to Alexa. But this hardly distracts from The Fellowship’s great success – navigating death, violence, and systemic injustice, through the relatable lens of relationships, rather than exclusive identities.

With thanks to Jelena Sofronijevic (@jelsofron) for this review. Jelana is an audio producer and freelance journalist, who makes content at the intersections of intercultural political history and the arts. They are the producer of EMPIRE LINES, a podcast which uncovers the unexpected flows of Empires through artworks.

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