(Photo credit: Charlie Eardley; Saskia Ross playing Ayo, Laura Cameron playing Flo)
A roundtable of reviews of SCENE, a play by Lola Olufemi and Martha Krish, performed at the Corpus Playroom from 14th-18th March 2017.
I will be selfish and say how SCENE made me feel. In short, I don’t know how Saskia and Laura managed to ignore the girl weeping in the front row through half the play. I was overwhelmed by how real and relatable it all was. Sure, I’ve never been that articulate in emotional arguments in my own interracial relationship, but that reality made the two characters’ dialogue even more significant in that they put into words thoughts that I have always struggled to articulate. Ayo’s and Flo’s conversations, consciously rewritten for the play within the play, expressed many things that I had never before been able to put into words.
I saw some of my own partner’s fears in SCENE; it made me empathise with ‘the other side of it’ in a way that it’s difficult to do in your own life. While walking home together I asked my partner whether I marginalise his struggles. He asked me if I’d like to talk about race more often, as it’s easy for him to forget. He said the second half of the play was easier to watch – I hadn’t even noticed that a white audience might genuinely be shaken by the opening monologue. It shakes. This is important. We talked about not feeling the need to be grateful for my mother’s less-than-bare minimum approval and involvement.
I spoke to another friend and she had entirely different moments replaying in her mind. There was something for everyone to take from it. And that is a product of infallible performances bringing to life incredibly sincere, clever, well-thought out writing – punctuated by humour, and the jokes here are for us, not on us.
I still haven’t managed to work my overwhelming emotions about this show into anything coherent. It was the best, most purposeful exploration of queer characters that I’ve ever seen. Educational without ever feeling preachy, and affirming without ever feeling clichéd. The monologues would have made beautiful stand-alone pieces of theatre, but also fit perfectly within the play. Some of the scenes made me cry, and others made me belly-laugh. Bits of the play were uncomfortable to watch as a non-black person, but this discomfort was addressed within the play itself: an ingenious way of opening up conversations between friends about race and interracial relationships. This was an incredible portrayal of two women in love, on stage, dealing with situations which so many queer women can relate to: and some of it hit very close to home, such as the character of Flo’s mother. SCENE is a beautiful piece of theatre, and I am desperately hoping for the chance to see it again, or to buy the script, share it with everyone I know, and read it until I know every line.
SCENE is easily the best thing I have ever seen, and I honestly cannot wait for it to be acted out on Broadway, or published in book form – people deserve to see/read it, and more than that, people need to see/read it. Not only because it features a story that is seldom centered in mainstream media (and of course, it does that masterfully) – that of a queer interracial relationship that is full of joy and confusion and pain, but none of the valorized caricature that often comes with such narratives – but because it is a work of art that demands the work of rethinking the way some things don’t have to be explained, just lived with, and lived with well.
I loved how Ayo’s and Flo’s story was told with love, but not dripping sentimentality; there was so much truth in their narrative in the way it demanded empathy and understanding and anger and sadness and joy for both characters, as if they were real people. I could see myself, my friends, my family, in the jokes, the shy, awkward glances and affectionate banter between Ayo and Flo, the hurtful small remarks made by Flo’s mother, the missed chances for reconciliation and communication lost to pride as well as time within the interwoven narratives. And the best part, for me at least, was that I didn’t have to relate to the story in the sense of stepping into either character’s shoes in order to feel the dialogue resonating in my bones; it didn’t have to speak to my personal experiences for me to feel the same confusion when it comes to navigating interracial attraction, relationships, and friendships. Ayo navigates her blackness in relation to her queerness and vice versa in relation to Flo’s whiteness and the wider world of adulthood and family; Flo tries to understand what it means to love someone whose experiences of oppression are simply inaccessible to her, to handle her family’s homophobia and continual denial of her own sexuality without engaging in a hierarchization of oppressions, or a decentering of Ayo’s lived experiences. Both make mistakes; both fail and succeed at rectifying their misunderstandings; both love each other, and do so not in spite or because of their differences, but alongside them. And they do all this in good humour, with the jokes in the play always managing to bring the story back to the everyday: laughter serves as a defence mechanism and as a means of joyful resistance that is shared between Ayo and Flo and the rest of the audience against a continual piling-up of problems and seemingly dead ends.
Things aren’t exactly resolved at the end of SCENE – we do not know if Ayo and Flo stay together. But anything more final would have been disingenuous to the play’s aim to paint a realistic picture of one couple’s experience in moving through the world. All the same, I left the theatre feeling a kind of radical joy that I had never felt so acutely in my entire time at Cambridge. SCENE showed me a world that I could see myself moving through, not without difficulty but perhaps with dignity, and for that, I am infinitely grateful.
SCENE is a strange play to look back to – the temporal distance between watching it on Thursday has both cemented the pleasure I had in its viewing while allowing what I liked less about its structure to crop up. First off, SCENE managed to break the record I’d so far had of seeing less than stellar plays in the Corpus Playroom, and it completely knocked most other student-written plays I’d seen out of the park with the depth of its characterisation, acting, scene-setting; with its everything, really. I only had the play’s opening moments to think of the actors as actors before I was totally pulled into their characters, and into an instantly recognisable and intersectional world combining race, sexuality and gender. Surprisingly, despite the technical relatability of all of these things to my own experience, I don’t often give them much active thought, so it was extremely thought-provoking and refreshing to experience a production which did, and which aimed to pull me into the discussion as a member of the audience. Whether it was the moment where Ayomide/Saskia talked about the social reticence with which people used the word ‘black’ as a descriptor, or opened a discussion about race and hair, the relatability of each experience was instantaneous.
Sometimes, the banter and humour – which was amazing, and every joke landed perfectly – did feel to me as if it pulled against the seriousness of the play. Not in a way that was divergent from the theme but in a way that left the realism of the relationship occasionally in question, in the way that characters on the stage or on TV who are able to deliver barrels of jokes sometimes highlight their fiction. Having a Nigerian heritage myself, I always have a heightened interest in the portrayal of Nigerian characters, especially on topics of sexuality. A selfish part of me wanted more of Ayomide’s family than just her and Flo paraphrasing them on occasion; what is an accepting Nigerian family’s reaction to the intersection of race, sexuality and gender? Despite references and paraphrasing, I left the play feeling that her family was a little voiceless where we’d been told in detail about how the white middle-class family handled these things, and then even heard from Flo’s white middle-class mother. If occasionally we wonder whether Ayomide’s opinions constitute a harshness, other black characters in the play would only have created a more interesting and varied dynamic.
But even where I am reserved in handing out praise to SCENE, this play certainly deserves much of it, and in droves – this is a play that, to echo Jun’s review, needs to be seen, and which I would happily have paid more to see in the West End or elsewhere outside of the student theatre stage. It is powerful, it is direct, and it pulls no punches in saying what it means to say. If you missed it, you missed possibly the most important student play I’ve watched across my time in Cambridge.
Claire Takami Siljedahl:
If you can’t find works with nuance, if all the plays you watch butcher the topics that are close to your heart, if you don’t see yourself in others’ art: make some yourself. Even before I watched it, I knew that SCENE was a performance in which I was comfortable giving myself over wholly to the cast, crew and script. The subject content and the sensitivity and authenticity of those who created it assured me that, unlike most of the things that I watch, this narrative was one that I would actually properly identify with. The longer I sat in that theatre, the more I saw myself in the events that unfolded. Hearing phrases I have heard others, or even myself, say, meant that in my mind’s eye I saw situations that I have experienced not only in parallel contexts but in ones between friends, relatives, acquaintances, strangers. As a result, I immediately felt fiercely protective of a story that felt like my own, and my investment meant that I found my body humming at the tenderness, the purity, and the absolute reality of the relationship I saw in front of me.
The characters themselves were incredibly well-written; when I saw them react to situations it was with all the complexity of the real people around me. The scriptwriters’ clever use of the past and present also helped to shape the nature of the relationship, showing trying moments and endearing ones that represented enough of their selves to leave you feeling like you knew Flo and Ayo the same way you knew your own friends. They didn’t shy away from difficult questions either: whose narrative is more important? Do they fall into tropes of misguided white girl and angry black girl? I especially loved the honesty with which they dealt with these questions; dealt being the right word, because they never really answered them. But then, that wasn’t the intention. Some questions are too difficult or too contested for us to know the answers to; some are left open.
Towards the end, my heart was in my mouth because I knew that the play was coming to a close but I didn’t for the life of me know how it would end, nor did I want what was one of the most promising and real relationships I had seen onstage to end in ultimate tragedy, because in my selfish heart of hearts, I felt like that would mean that stories like that, stories like mine and others I knew, were doomed. The play’s close was perfect, but not because it satisfied me with a happy ending. It was in the form of a flashback where Flo and Ayo first discuss the project and its possible consequences for their relationship. Ultimately, they decide to go forward despite what it could mean for their future together. It was tinged with love and the bittersweet.
When I left the performance, I felt the empty spaces that the questions had opened up, and felt hope flow in.