Caryl Phillips’s Strange Fruit belongs to the canon of “angry young man” dramas reminiscent of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger that hit the stage in the 60’s. What Phillips has achieved, is bringing to the stage the angry young man he knows all too well – the angry young black man of the 1980’s. Phillips’s anti-hero, Errol (Jonathan Ajayi), is relentlessly furious, to the point of insanity, banging his head against his fists and hitting out at others. The abject racism he witnesses, and experiences consumes him. He doesn’t hold back. He punches, metaphorically and literally.
Whether Phillips was influenced by Osborne is a moot point, but the comparisons are there. Just like Osborne’s Jimmy Porter, Errol directs his anger mostly at the women in his life. Jimmy goes for his wife and mother-in-law; Errol goes for his girlfriend (Tilly Steele as Shelley) and mother (Rakie Ayola as Vivian). Both guys have a bust-up with a significant man who fails to match their exacting fury (Jimmy’s best man; Errol’s older brother -Tok Stephen as Alvin). Both have a Great Cause, fighting working-class and black oppression, respectively.
Jonathan Ajayi as Errol with Tilly Steele as Shelley; Rakie Ayola as Vivian; Tok Stephen as Alvin with Debra Michaels as Vernice (Photos by Helen Murray)
Like all anger resulting from oppression, it can be justified. Mostly, it is dished out by young men with strong personalities and without care or comprehension of the complexities of others’ lives. This is so in Strange Fruit. White people are described by Errol in anecdotes, as viciously racist; the mother is to blame for just about everything not least bringing her small sons to a cold island of bigots; the wretched girlfriend just deserves abuse and Errol's brother gets it on the nose for backing-off the revolution.
Jump four decades ahead and today, Phillips’s Strange Fruit still deals a powerful punch, although the anger suddenly appears less clear cut. Unabated abuse of mothers, pot shots at the mixed race and gleeful contempt of girlfriends is shocking. Errol relentlessly berates his mother, superbly portrayed by Rakie Ayola despite having to cower mutely without lines of retort before her son’s incrimination. Inexplicably, leaving a violent husband was an act of utter selfishness for which her sons can never forgive her - well, he was a great cricketer, after all. Alvin also spends half the play scorning his ineffective, half-baked, white girlfriend, a preposterous character made endearing by Tilly Steele. Unadulterated misogyny pervades Strange Fruit, although Debra Michaels as the longstanding family friend Vernice, gives as good as she gets.
That said, although Phillips’s Errol lacks compromise or compassion, he is rightly righteous as an angry young black man – the key tenet of the play. First produced in 1980, Errol’s story is imbued with the experience of surviving the seventies, the child of Caribbean parents encouraged to emigrate to Britain but unwelcome during the fifties and sixties. Racism was raw and unfettered in many respects. Phillips’s Errol is brought to the Bush Theatre with energy and verve by Jonathan Ajayi, but matched with passion by Rakie Ayola, his mother.
Written by Caryl Philips
Directed by Nancy Medina
Cast – Jonathan Ajayi, Rakie Ayola, Debra Michaels, Tilly Steele and Tok Stephen
12 June – 27 July 2019 at the Bush Theatre, 7 Uxbridge Road, London, W12 8LJ
London Theatre of the Year (The Stage)