Perhaps it is the fact that every day a new child abuse scandal seems to emerge; perhaps it is the recent news that conviction rates for domestic violence in the UK are at an all-time high. But this I know: the one thing that has stayed with me in the past 24 hours since seeing bt i cd only whisper at the Arcola theatre is its portrayal of the abuse of women and children. You could say the production’s timing was ironic, immaculate, lucky even. I’m not sure if it would have managed to be so haunting without the context of recent current events.
Tabula Rasa Theatre’s production of Kristiana Colón’s bt i cd only whisper is its world premiere and the new studio space at Dalston’s Arcola theatre offers a claustrophobic setting to a play about a black Vietnam war veteran in post-Martin Luther King America. Nadia Latif’s production is built around interviews between Beau Willie Brown, in custody for an unnamed crime, and his psychiatrist Drummond who is himself, unusually for the US in 1970, African-American. Beau’s testimony invites other characters from his life to offer monologues on their experiences with him: the mother of his children, Crystal; his mistress, Genevieve; his friend Marvin and a sergeant from Vietnam.
The production makes use of the stage superbly, opening with characters running across the stage behind the mesh screen of Beau’s memory, in front of which he remains throughout the production with his psychiatrist, who is a blatant metaphor for his conscience, repeating “Tell me about ‘Nam”. Screens at the back of the stage light up every now and then with footage to complement what’s being said.
The problem with this play is that it tries to cram too much into 90 minutes. Juggling the huge subject of the Vietnam war with the racism back home that was still rife in 1970, on top of the private turmoil of Beau’s family life, is a lot to keep on track of, particularly when the story is fed to us largely through monologues and with little variation. I can’t praise the acting highly enough, particularly from Adetomiwa Edun as Beau and Emmanuella Cole as Crystal, but when Beau lashes out at one end of the stage and Crystal reacts to it at the other, it feels rather like a school play.
The somewhat over-stylised direction makes it hard for the production to retain momentum and it’s easy for us to lose track of certain aspects of the plot. This isn’t helped by the fact that Beau’s crime is kept secret from us until the very end: clearly an attempt to create suspense, but in fact a technique that is perhaps rather worn and clichéd by now.
Maybe I’m being harsh. As I mentioned, one aspect of the play that did and will stay with me is the dreadful abuse of Crystal by Beau. The most memorable episode involves Crystal giving a heartbreaking monologue about how she and Beau met with flashing images of her bruised face and burnt body on the screen behind her. They met on the stairwell of her apartment block when she was 13 and he was 20; when he came onto her she was too young to understand the sensation in her groin and ran to the toilet thinking she needed to urinate. Two kids later and she is utterly reliant on him despite his violence and his affairs. But as she says, he is all she has ever known. She is trapped in her situation.
There is an attempt to make us believe Beau is also trapped, in this world where a white woman will be drawn to the exoticism of a black man but will say that black women “only care about money and what’s between a man’s legs”; a world where trying to get employed at Woolworths is an uphill struggle; where fighting and killing are the only ways to shape his identity as he admits that he “wasn’t nothing before the war.”
But by the time the play comes to a close and Beau’s horrific crime is revealed, it’s difficult to identify with him or with his white mistress Genevieve, who screams at Crystal that she has ruined Beau’s life, although she was only a child when he effectively took hers away.
Colón’s script includes some beautiful poetry. And there are certain moments that are so well acted, so poignant, that they bring tears to the audience’s eyes. But the attempt to layer the narrative with so many huge issues makes what could have been a powerful and heartbreaking exploration of an abusive relationship a bit too much like a soap opera.
"bt i cd only whisper" is at the Arcola Theatre, London E8 until 1 December