The word ‘chiaroscuro’ has a number of meanings; one of which is the quality of being veiled, or partly in shadow. Jackie Kay’s 1986 four-women play about the members of a girl band carries that spirit. It’s an exploration of the identity of black and Asian women in Britain: which aspects of identity do we show, which do we hide, and which do we reject?
What Beth (Shiloh Coke) rejects isn’t an aspect of her identity but a label she is given because of it: “Lesbian.” It isn’t that she is in denial about being attracted to and in a relationship with a woman, it’s that she prefers the term “queer”.
For Beth’s girlfriend Opal (Anoushka Lucas), it’s her racial identity as well as her sexuality that she grapples with as she comes of age. She’s mixed-race and also uses the term “black” – raised by white parents, it’s the thing that makes the most sense to her.
Yomi (Gloria Onitiri) is more conservative in her approach to race – and sexuality. She insists that Opal is, in fact, “half-caste” and is unapologetic in her opinion that homosexuality is unnatural. The sound of these words is venomous – Onitiri all but spits them and they cut through the air.
Aisha (Preeya Kalidas) is caught in the middle. She’s the one who binds the band together; she looks to her friends to find the courage to remove her own metaphorical veil.
Lynette Linton’s playful staging, her inaugural production as artistic director of the Bush Theatre, combines spoken word, live music and more conventional storytelling techniques. Original compositions by Coke, who also doubles as the show’s musical director, meld and mingle with the dulcet tones of the ensemble.
All this is brought together by Moi Tran’s stripped-back, black-box set. The stage is transformed with props into various different spaces: microphones in each corner turn it into a recording studio, a couple of stools dotted about the place transform it into a coffee shop, a drum kit centre stage turns it into to a gig venue. Jose Tevar’s lighting pulses and flickers to the beats of Richard Hammarton’s sound design.
Linton’s production is also a bold statement of intent. It’s an acknowledgement of a younger generation who are now coming of age, and an open invitation to come to west London to learn and explore. Kay’s piece may be more than three decades old, but as long as babies are born and the world keeps turning, the need for conversations about who we are will remain eternally relevant.