I was really excited to be able to go to The Upsetters new writing double bill at The Bunker tonight. They focus on theatre written by writers of colour, directed by directors of colour and performed by actors of colour, unless the script specifies otherwise. Their double bill is made up of ‘Wakes’ and ‘Unburied’, two very different but rich stories, that expose systemic racism and the violence it unleashes against the communities it targets.
‘Wakes’ written by Sidney Belony tells the story of two young black women. It is a powerful piece about the aftermath of an act of violent racism, and the impact it has on their lives, and their friendship, as they respond to it very differently. Antonia Layiwola and Hayley Konadu give nuanced and passionate performances in this wonderfully balanced two-hander. The structure of the play shows their friendship at three different moments in time, and creates a satisfying emotional journey for the audience. The final upbeat scene devastatingly reinforces the tragedy of the situation.
Belony makes such smart and distinctive language choices for her two characters, which help signpost the different paths the girls will take from the very beginning. Director Brigitte Adela gives her cast the space to own their character’s stories, and I really enjoyed the way she set up the tone of each new scene through the deceptively simple mechanic of on-stage costume changes. This play is infused with humour and pain, making it all the more human and relatable.
‘Unburied’ written by Jimin Suh, is based on real events, and an area of history I’m embarrassed to say I knew very little about. We focus on a Korean family living in Vladivostok in the far East of Soviet Russia in 1937, who are deported from their home because Stalin is worried they, and all the other Koreans near the Eastern border, might be Japanese spies. These deportations were on a massive scale, and the conditions of the long train journeys meant that many people died.
By focusing on a single family, Suh pulls out the personal tragedy of an overwhelmingly brutal act of violence against an established and peaceful community. This is a huge story, and it really comes together in the flashbacks to their life in Vladivostok: the family dynamic, and the comforting familiarity of the every day problems they faced are so evocative, and provide such a stark contrast to their harsh new reality. The severity of the situation they face travelling in a freezing cold train carriage designed for cattle, is much more challenging to bring to life. In these scenes I was engaged, but not fully transported, as the pacing dragged in places. However, given the scale of the play, and the speed with which this production was brought to the stage, director Adrian Tang has done an impressive job, and I’d be really excited to see how this ambitious piece develops in future. This is such an important story, and a part of history that I suspect many of us need to be educated about.
Friday 28th February is your last chance to see this thought-provoking and challenging double bill of new plays at the Bunker. If you can’t make Friday, The Upsetters are finishing off their week takeover with scratch performances of 5 short plays on Saturday 29th February at 4pm and 7.30pm. Sounds like a good way to celebrate the extra day of a leap year to me.