“I hear people talk about God’s justice and I wonder.”
Written in response to the glorification of the Ku Klux Klan contained in 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, Angelina Weld Grimké’s Rachel has the remarkable tag of being the first play by an African-American woman to ever be produced professionally. Despite that, it has languished mostly unseen since then and this revival by the Finborough marks the European premiere and a contribution to the work of Black History Month. It’s easy to dismiss work such as this saying it has collected dust on the shelves for a reason but this fascinating context alone surely negates that and in Ola Ince’s production, dramatic reasons emerge too.
Commissioned by the NAACP (about whom I wrote my undergraduate dissertation oddly enough), it set out “to use the stage for race propaganda in order to enlighten the American people” about the African-American experience and given that it is still an ongoing struggle for playwrights today, what Weld Grimké achieved in the early 20th century is significant. There’s a lack of sophistication to her writing that is undeniable, the overly expositional dialogue clunks once too often in asking its searching questions about comprehension and compromise, as the educated but endearingly naïve Rachel comes to terms with the racist world she must engage with.
Miquel Brown’s superb Mrs Loving swept up her children Rachel and Tom after tragedy hit their Southern home and relocated them to a northern city where things have been better, just. The problem being that the expectations that accompanied their education remain unfulfilled, society may have moved a little quicker up here but not that much. Napay Kpaka’s hugely appealing Tom can’t get work as an engineer for love nor money and Adelayo Adedayo traces the dampening of Rachel’s optimism with real power, the girlish dreams of the play’s opening slowly shattered by the revelation of how sheltered she has been from the ugliness of the racist world at large.
Rachel may not be without its issues but as it hits its devastating final beats, you’ll be hard-pressed to remember what they are. Weld Grimké’s gift for character is clear and there’s a sad timelessness to many of the issues that they face – prejudice remains as it ever was. A worthy revival indeed.