Theatre review: oppression across the centuries

March 20, 2023

The cast of Rush: left to right: Aya (Cara McInnay), Missy (Natsai Gurupira), young Missy (Amber Ogunsaya) and Abeni (Grace Wariola), Credit: Chickenshed Theatre

Shakira Dyer reviews Chickenshed’s new show shedding light on evolving injustice

Chickenshed’s new show, Rush explores the lives of three black women: university student Aya (played by Cara McInnay), her grandmother Missy (Natsai Gurupita), and their West African ancestor Abeni (Grace Wariola).

Through various scenes, we follow the main characters: Aya living in Tottenham in 2018, with her grandmother, Missy in their council flat, which is under threat of redevelopment.

We then meet Missy as a young woman and member of the Windrush generation, arriving in 1960s London from Jamaica. Working in a laundrette, Missy meets a white man and falls in love, yet faces racist remarks from her new boyfriend’s mostly uninformed family. The couple are eventually chucked out.

Their West African ancestor, Abeni watches her country changed by 1800s British colonialism, Christianity and the English language is being forced on them by a ‘well-meaning’ yet paternalistic reverend (played by Mathew Lyons) and authoritarian colonial soldiers.

We follow Abeni’s scenes with her younger sister, Kambilie – who prefers speaking the English she learns, and wants to be called Joan, as she is known in her British missionary-created school.

Those in power are shown high on the balcony, making obviously corrupt deals, yet immorally rationalising their actions

Aya first sees a vision of her African ancestor in a nightclub, yet she can strangely understand Abeni’s language of Yoruba (actor Grace Wariola’s first language) which neither Aya nor Missy can speak themselves. Abeni is calling out for help, perhaps due to what she herself went through, or perhaps warning Missy and Aya.

A linking factor in all these women’s lives is how the controlling authorities look down on them, attempt to use them or otherwise don’t care about them.

In these scenes, those in power are shown high on the balcony, making obviously corrupt deals, yet immorally rationalising their actions.

For instance, even in Aya’s generation, Missy is caught up in the recent Windrush scandal, which threatened some of the Windrush generation with deportation, as their original landing passes – and proof of residency in the UK – had been destroyed by the Home Office, as the older generation died.

Missy asks for help, and is told she may be able to claim her pass was destroyed to get her residency accepted. But in the meantime she cannot access vital services such as the NHS. Others are shown unable to access any help at all, being sent to different officials, getting confused.

In the play, the property developers are shown to be deliberately wanting to evict residents in order to sell the land for higher prices to richer customers. And if these residents could be marked as ‘illegal’ all the better – although both property officials also had relatives that weren’t from Britain themselves.

Ashley Driver, creative director of the performance, said of the workshop process, “It was very organic. We wanted to educate our students, and encourage them to speak with and interview their older relatives, to use their experiences in creating content for the show.”

Ashley says he originally thought of the play as three separate stories, but then realised they worked best together. “I’d always wanted to explore the topics individually, until I read the dictionary definitions of colonialism and gentrification, and found similarities in their explanations. It got me thinking that, maybe it’s the same story over again throughout history, so I began looking at it as a larger, all-encompassing piece.”

The play is interspersed with radio snippets and video footage, such as MP David Lammy’s 2018 speech against the government handling of the Windrush scandal, or far-right groups such as English Defence League who oppose immigration.

Chickenshed produces a hard-hitting and politically based play, with significance for today

The music spans genres of Lovers’ Rock, Ska, Reggae, Rap, and Soul – performed by the cast and band. For example, there was ‘Ghost Town’, by multicultural ska band, The Specials when discussing the effects of gentrification on Missy and Aya’s neighbourhood and ‘London is the Place for Me’ by calypsonian Lord Kitchener (sung as ironically as the original, I assume) as the young Missy arrives in London. ‘My Princess Gone’ by Jah Mason, when Missy and her boyfriend split, was sung particularly powerfully.

Finally, the song ‘Colours’ by Black Pumas, towards the end, seems to imply the potential for objectification and isolation… or of coming together, and realising our connections.

The three women’s interwoven stories do not have a neat resolution. Young Missy’s boyfriend leaves her, Abeni protests by singing African songs in a Christian church service, and is taken away. Meanwhile Missy, having hidden the deportation notice from her granddaughter, is eventually deported and has to leave her granddaughter, as the lights black out for the final scene.

Once again, Chickenshed produces a hard-hitting and politically based play, with significance for today.

Rush will be shown at Chickenshed until 25th March 2023. For tickets and information, visit the Chickenshed website.
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The cast of Rush: left to right: Aya (Cara McInnay), Missy (Natsai Gurupira), young Missy (Amber Ogunsaya) and Abeni (Grace Wariola), Credit: Chickenshed Theatre

Leona Omotayo Frater gives her take on outstanding show

Another outstanding show from Chickenshed and again, I am stunned by the level of talent I was lucky enough to witness. Chickenshed’s Rush, is a deep and powerful storyline displayed in a highly entertaining and engaging performance.

Rush, delves deep into topics such as gentrification, colonisation, the Windrush, identity, ancestry, whilst also tackling themes of bias, power, stereotypes and inclusion. The story follows Missy (played by Natsai Gurupira), a member of the Windrush who faces challenges regarding her permanent stay in England who lives with her grand-daughter, Aya (played by Cara Mclnanny).

Their council home in Tottenham is threatened by the local authority, when they propose a redevelopment which would relocate Aya and her grandmother outside of London. Feelings of outrage, uncertainty and panic are portrayed by Aya, her grandmother and their community who all face the same problems.

This is not the only time, Missy has experienced obstacles in her life. We see a young Missy, working in a laundrette who falls in love with a white man, but this relationship becomes tarnished by prejudices, stereotypes and labelling by his family. What we see is a realistic end to their relationship.

Rush leaves viewers moved by the acting and storylines – and undoubtedly so was I

We also meet Abeni (played by Grace Wariola) , a West-African ancestor, who faces challenges from British colonists who endeavour to ‘civilise’ the small village through religion and language. Unlike Abeni, her sister, Kambilie embraces these changes from British colonists and even wants to change her name to Joan – the name she is called at her British school.

One decision that I appreciated about Rush were the true-to-life outcomes of dire situations. As a black woman myself, I found it compelling to observe the potential stories of my ancestors whilst also resonating with stories of my community in the modern day.

Besides the deep storylines, things are kept upbeat through the striking song choices, influenced from Reggae, Rap, Lovers Rock, Soul and more. Growing up with many of the songs played, I had to stop myself from getting up, and dancing and singing! Outstanding singing combined with versatile choreography has you moving in your seat.

Rush leaves viewers moved by the acting and storylines – and undoubtedly so was I. Amazing cast, powerful music and all-in-all a breathtaking show!

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