Gate Theatre, London W11
Opened 9 March, 2001

Erica Whyman's inaugural "Liberty" season as artistic director of London's Gate Theatre continues with a solid production by Deborah Yhip of Florence Gibson's unremarkable play Belle. The easiest way to describe it is to say that it is a Black American Woman's play, despite being written by a Canadian who may well (I have no idea) be white. I use the aforementioned term not just to suggest its subject matter, but also (with a glibness for which I apologise) to indicate a particular kind of overwriting which sets out not just to bestow rightful dignity upon the thoughts and feelings of its characters but actually to reclaim the richness of language for them, but which too often overshoots into top-heavy poeticism. In the densely lyrical opening movement, the main male character refers to his wife Belle as "Song of my earth, more inside me than my bones", which is a beautiful phrase but stands out only for its quotable succinctness. As Carlyle remarked of the historian Macaulay, this kind of speech is "very well for a while, but one wouldn't live under Niagara."

The setting of the play is the seldom-treated post-American Civil War era of the Reconstruction, in which newly emancipated Bowlyn and Belle (Joseph Jones and Tina Gambe) walk north to New York City, fall in with women's suffragist Nance (Isobel Middleton) and plan a rainbow coalition to obtain equal rights. However, once this dramatic canvas is set up, the events portrayed on it are less than surprising. Inevitably, Bowlyn and Nance have a fling; inevitably, the trio none of whom truly understands the others despite the best of intentions fractures along both racial and sexual lines, especially when the Fifteenth Amendment is passed, giving the vote (at least in name) to black men but not to women. And too often the action and dialogue are commandeered by Gibson's agenda as a writer. "I ain't used to speechifyin' my life," says Bowlyn at one point, but he and the others consistently, fully and directly articulate their respective deepest hearts. After a certain point, even the poetry begins to pall and we are left with language which is principally the modern-day cant of assertiveness and pride as therapy.

Yhip and her cast of five work well in the deep, narrow playing space; if there are too many instances of spotlit soliloquising (in speech or song) at the audience, it is not their fault.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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