“Would you like to see Kwame Kwei-Armah’s new play Seize the Day?” asked Emily, the nice young lady from Total Politics. “It’s about a middle class black guy having a crack at becoming Mayor of London,” she said. How could I resist?
The premise was not all that farfetched: long-standing players in the race relations world bemoaning the relative lack of progression made by black politicians. Seeing the London mayoralty as an opportunity to shortcut the system and create an Obama moment, they look to get someone with a bit of spark and an existing public profile, surround him with political insiders, run him as an independent, throw big money at the campaign and hey presto – a black Mayor of London.
So much for the manifesto; what about the delivery? There were times when I worried that the script was being played out by a cast of caricatures. Through much of the first act all but the leads seemed a little exaggerated, not quite grotesques but not quite right either.
All the characters you would expect to see were there but, slightly disappointingly, none that generated surprise. There was Jeremy Charles, reality TV celebrity, charismatic and dynamic, thrust to the fore but torn between his ambition and his conscience. He is being pushed, polished and prepared for greatness by manipulative power players dripping flattery into his ear.
To offset this we have Lavelle, a knife-carrying gang kid, there to provide raw street wisdom; the narrative equivalent of a hooker with the heart of gold. And, ultimately, we had Jeremy’s slim white wife and Lavelle’s curvy, black, earth-mother to provide a metaphorical and visible spectrum against which we could measure the authenticity of Jeremy’s blackness or lack thereof.
The dialogue and acting saved these characters; their words, opinions and even their gestures were well-observed and sharp. Peppered with in-jokes about the cynicism of politics in general and race politics in particular, Kwame clearly did plenty of homework before writing and directing this play and was unafraid of stepping on a few toes.
People in the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the campaigning group Operation Black Vote may see glimpses of themselves in the kingmakers and spin doctors who orbit Jeremy; there are plenty of not-so-tangential references to them. They may not like what they see. Diane Abbott came out of it well, mentioned enough times that she might feel aggrieved not to have got a credit on the cast list.
If the first act was played a little too much for laughs, the second was much more mature and thoughtprovoking, providing some lemon to cut the honeyed first half. This is where the big questions were asked. In order to win in London, would a black candidate need to black up or become colourless? Could they get in with only the ethnic vote or without it? Would the win be for the individual or for all black Londoners?
If I told you whether or not these questions are answered, I would probably spoil the ending. But this play is at least as much about what it means to be comfortable, middle class and black as it is about politics.
Seize the Day was easy to watch and well observed; I didn’t leave the theatre disappointed.
A little while ago I promised you the review of Kwame Kwei-Armah new play “Seize the Day”. Well here it is. It is in this month’s edition of Total Politics (available online) and as the Americans would say “there is a whole bunch of other great stuff in there too”.