Prepare to meet a new star of British theatre. British playwright debbie tucker green [sic] makes her U.S. debut with the production of her play Born Bad at the Soho Rep. Prepare also for a searing and sometimes excruciatingly painful family drama performed by a stellar ensemble of some of the leading lights of African American theatre.
Set over a day in a claustrophobic, dowdy living room, a Jamaican-American family of adult children reveals to each other what they know about what really happened when they were children.
The opening scene is a breathtaking confrontation between the mother, played by the established actress Elain Graham, and the eldest daughter or “Dawta,” Heather Alicia Simms in a powerful performance. The daughter berates her mother, repeatedly calling her “bitch” in an attempt to force a confession. The language is at once limited and inventive as tucker green draws out a virtuoso stage argument coining the term “bitchism” en route – in print the scene runs to 5 pages of expletives. The father, played with sinister restraint by Michael Rogers, sits impassive throughout, an ominous presence and nearly completely silent.
The play was first performed in London and garnered tucker green an Olivier Award for Best New Play. The sparkling production at Soho Rep reveals why there is so much buzz about this young Black British woman’s writing. Her work includes five stage plays and a body of plays produced by BBC Radios 3 and 4, an important incubator for new writing talent in the UK.
With each new scene, a new member of the family arrives, and with them a new layer of truth is unveiled. Director Leah C. Gardiner uses the spare set and small stage to great effect as family members try to put distance between them. Gardiner said after the show that she has long been hoping to direct one of tucker green’s plays and luckily the creative director at the Soho Rep, Sarah Benson, a Brit, shared that ambition. This required a modicum of “translation” to Americanize the play. “debbie was very keen for it to be American language,” said Gardiner. “But we changed very little because the story is universal.”
For the black cast, the U.S. premiere of Born Bad represents an all too infrequent opportunity to work on a new play by a black writer. Many in the cast feel that Britain is a more fertile ground for black theatre. LeRoy McClain, who delivers a nuanced performance of “Brother,” has first hand knowledge of the black British Theatre scene as he is British. “Black British plays are rarely performed in the U.S. but there’s a tremendous wealth of Black British talent out there,” he said in a talkback after the performance. “The theatrical community here can benefit.”
But while the cast is black and the dialogue reverts from time to time to Jamaican patois, this could be any dysfunctional family, where each member knows their own truth but only one of them knows the whole truth. tucker green’s frequently repetitious dialogue has poetic power and meticulous precision. It also has moments of hilarity. Crystal A. Dickinson as Sister #2, the annoying youngest member of the family, delivers a delightful series of Malapropisms such as “excrusivising” with a deft touch. You find yourself laughing out loud while you should be gasping in horror. Quincy Tyler Bernstine as Sister #1 plays the quiet sibling caught between her elder sister and brother with sensitivity and subtlety beyond the words.
As the play delivers a relentless series of shocks, siblings betray each other; parents betray children and their parental duties. Memory lapses deliberate or otherwise also serve to hold the audience on tenterhooks until the final moment of truth. For New York audiences, we can only hope that this will be the first of many of tucker green’s plays to make the trip across the pond.