“The Fellowship” – Hampstead Theatre

Dana Rufolo in north London

Experiencing the vitality and emotional intensity of black British playwright Roy Williams’ The Fellowship is a healing antidote to the emotional void of Covid-induced isolation during which relations to kith and kin languished.

 

Cherrelle Skeete and Suzette Llewellyn. Photo credit: Robert Day.

 

Concerning three generations of a family suffering the stresses and strains of careers, prejudices, growing up and ageing seen from the perspective of black British citizens, The Fellowship echoes the concerns of its audiences, no matter what race they are or where they come from – with the possible exception of those who come from teeny-tiny families.

The Fellowship has been undersold. Hampstead Theatre advertises the play’s contemporary British setting with this quote, selected as ‘memorable’, from young Jermaine (Ethan Hazzard), who is in the third ‘Windrush generation’: “Where’s the glory Mum? Where’s that perfect world for us, your kids?”

Those lines are really incidental to the thrust of the drama. I am not British and do not share the national Weltanschauung and so, to me, the most memorable line in the script isn’t a well-educated, well-nourished teenage boy’s rant against his parent but his father Tony’s retort to a young, female, and black policeman PC Spencer (Yasmin Mwanza) when “Mum”, who is Tony’s partner Dawn, is under investigation: “Look at what they’ve got you doing girl, to your own people.”

Tony is in the second ‘Windrush” generation’ – just as are the lead characters sisters Dawn (Cherrelle Skeete) and Marcia (Suzette Llewellyn). Tony reports with a modicum of bitterness (the character is the most inhibited in the play, primed to being a loser, so Trevor Laird correctly understates all of Tony’s reactions and feelings) that his own father spent all his free time behind picket lines – and, like the two sisters, Tony continued the tradition by participating in endless UK protest marches against discrimination that they now consider to have been futile. When Tony talks of his own people, he has divided the world along colour lines, something Jermaine needn’t do.

 

Yasmin Mwanza and Cherrelle Skeet. Photo credit: Robert Day.

 

The Fellowship shows the playwright’s belief that each family member is a branch that is nourished by a shared root system. So, when Dawn complains that Marcia makes no effort to help care for their ageing mother who is housed in an upstairs bedroom of Dawn’s attractive home (designer Libby Watson), she is not issuing ultimatums or declaring limits to her affection but is merely pointing out unfairness as she perceives it. That doesn’t in any way mean she isn’t proud of the fact that her sister Marcia is a barrister. And later, when Marcia discovers that insidiously she has not after all managed to break the gender or the colour barrier, Dawn genuinely feels for her and extends an understanding hand.

The American sitting next to me in the theatre declared that the American race “problem” is of a fundamentally different character, being based on African Americans having been brought over as slaves to the USA, whereas the ‘Windrush generation’ were people who under the British Nationality Act of 1948 were brought from the Caribbean as UK citizens and who were then suddenly prosecuted as aliens in 2018.

That is true if we are expecting yet another borderlands drama where two sides are set up against each other – think James Baldwin – but false if we think Toni Morrison who declared herself to be uninterested in racial borderlands, preferring to inhabit the heartland within her own safe monoracial community which shared in its own particular way the same petty and earnest concerns – “time, food, money, clothes, laughter, memory—and daring” [Sula preface] – as the white communities surrounding Lorain, Ohio. Roy Williams himself stated that the play’s title “the fellowship” is a very personal term, being the bespoke nickname for the entire lot of people who compose his, the Williams’, extended family.

The delightful aspect to The Fellowship viewed in live production and in the Hampstead’s seating configuration that allows one to be close to the action is that the actors all appear to be joyful in their roles and at ease with the story that the action tells. Now, each of the actors in The Fellowship is a beautifully professional being, and we all know that professionals feign or shall we call it Stanislavsky-method all their roles, so how can I assert that there was an extra élan among the cast?

I can’t really prove my statement except to note that both Skeete and Mwanza came into the play as replacements and yet were off-book by the matinee performance on Thursday 30 June despite us being warned to expect scripts in hand. It is maybe the ease with which the sentences poured out, the impression that the actors saw the logic of their lines, that I noticed.

 

Ethan Hazzard and Rosie Day. Photo credit: Robert Day.

 

An amazing performance to be singled out here was that of Rosie Day as Jermaine’s girlfriend Simone, especially in the first act. The only white British character, definitely perceived as an intruding outsider by Dawn (mitigated to some extent when her son Jermaine tells her to get over her resentment), she played an insecure, brazen, awkward, smart teenager over-the-top. And that is just what her character is: over-the-top. She perfectly walked that thin line between embodied character and overacting. When she tones down and becomes more conciliatory in the second act, I was actually sorry to see that abashed teenager disappear, but of course the script had required her to grow in the direction of maturity.

Elements of magical realism in The Fellowship include the slavishly obedient Alexa which delivers dancing music on call and the brief visit of Dawn and Marcia’s dead mother masterfully played by Mwanza.

Paulette Randall as director is the one responsible for the actors fitting the characters so well. This is the fourth Roy Williams play she has done. Interestingly, she has also brought to the British stage the black American perspective with five Pittsburgh Cycle plays by August Wilson at the Kiln Theatre in Kilburn, London, when it was still named the Tricycle Theatre.

As a final note I wish to add that there are occasional rough patches in The Fellowship’s first run. Some audience members applauded too soon, mistaking the end of a scene for the end of the play. There is perhaps too little anger in the characters, too much resignation. I desperately wanted Tony to stand proud.

But, when all is said and done, a tiny bit of sand in the eyes is worth a baker’s dozen of productions of set-in-stone classics whose every word has been chiselled into our collegiate minds. We have come to accept that theatre is productions of plays by long-dead authors which chiefly intrigue us because they have been dressed in an array of gender and racial combinations – and they are where the most famous names are showcased and where the umpteenth clever production concept is vaunted as the best simply because it is the latest.

But theatre is also about new dramas. It is a privilege to hear sparkling new dialogue and to see a commissioned drama written during 2020 and published (by Methuen) and produced in 2022 that deals with a segment of British society as it is right now.

The Fellowship plays at the Hampstead Theatre through Saturday, 23 July.