Jocelyn Jee Esien
David and Natasha are in love. But their relationship is under pressure, and nobody it seems neither their friends nor their families – is happy to see the pair of them together.
Femi Oguns’ play examines a rift within the British black community, between those of African descent and those from the Caribbean. David (played by Oguns) and Natasha (Kelle Bryan, a former member of girl band Eternal) hail from different sides of the divide. His family are African, from Nigeria, and his sharp-tempered older sister is angered by the fact that David would want to date a girl whose people have “no culture, no substance.” Natasha’s father, who is West Indian Jamaican is equally against the relationship, unshakeable in his belief that all Africans are corrupt and untrustworthy.
Torn was originally staged at the Arcola last year and returns, after a period of development under director Raz Shaw, to the theatre’s main house. This endlessly flexible space has been arranged in-the-round, maximising the urban atmosphere of this former factory. A series of translucent screens have been erected around the room, behind which the characters sit when not on stage, with the effect that David and Natasha are always being, in some way, scrutinised – and judged.
Oguns’ play attempts to unpick both sides of the divide. So Natasha’s father cites reports he’s seen on Comic Relief as justification for his belief that Africa is a place consumed by poverty and corruption, while much of David’s sister’s anger at her brother dating a “Jamo”, meanwhile, is fuelled by a loss of status, a loss of control. In Britain, she is just another black woman: end of story. Of course, much of this anger is tied to the legacy of slavery, an unending and bloodied thread.
While the play’s first half swerves between scenes of conflict and more broadly comic moments, the second half is subtler in its approach and far more balanced. It is here that the character of Natasha’s father comes in to his own and Oguns, remembering that his characters are people and not just points of view, shows how the widowed Malcolm’s anger and bigotry stem, in part, from love and a desire to protect his daughter.
It seems to be a new rule, when writing about modern London, that one needs to include a token Polish character and Torn is no exception. But, thankfully, the character of Freddy (played by Richard Hollis) ends up doing more than just broadening the ethnic palette. Distanced from his family, and all those he holds dear, he brings with him a different perspective on the situation and stands as a lone voice of reason.
These are social divisions that have been touched upon with some frequency of late, in plays such Roy Williams’ Joe Guy and Kwame Kwei Armah’s Statement of Regret, but whereas in those productions, these issues were part of a larger collage, in this Romeo and Juliet tale they are brought to the fore, providing the main thrust of drama. Though it has its moments of both tenderness and insight, at times Torn felt too overtly issue led, with character development getting trampled by the need to maintain the debate. So we get references to further subdivisions between Ghanaians and Nigerians and reminders of the fact that Jamaicans aren’t held in particularly high-regard by those from other parts of the Caribbean. This box-ticking approach also seemed to be behind the inclusion of the character of Kirsty, the street-speaking white girl who likes her men “properly chocolate” and a “little bit gangster.”
In the performance I saw, this character was played by Claire-Louise Cordwell, a last minute replacement for the actress Brooke Kinsella whose brother was killed over the weekend. This awful incident inevitably cast a shadow over the production, and a message from Kinsella was read out by the director at the start of the evening. Cordwell, placed in what must have been a difficult position, performed with script in hand, but her timing was excellent. Indeed all the cast performed well under what must have been very upsetting circumstances.