“It feels a little bit like we’re asked to be the interracial couple”
Both in their 30s and both professors of “obscure versified English”, Jamaican-American Richard and Irish-American Sheryl seem to have it made when they’re asked to take part in a series of ‘bedroom interviews’, the promise of a potential book deal luring them into agreement. Presuming their interracial relationship and their decision to start a family is the reason they’ve been scouted, they jump right into baring their souls to their webcam-based interviewer but soon discover that they’re not quite ready for the answers they’re about to reveal.
Aurin Squires’ Don’t Smoke in Bed is a thrillingly incisive look into what Avenue Q memorably labelled “the sensitive subject of race”. Richard and Sheryl pride themselves on not arguing, rather enjoying having “strong conversations”, though as they begin to delve into the detail of how their partnership works and crucially, expose the perceptions that each has about the way that racial politics – and indeed class – has or hasn’t impacted on their lives, their certainties are crumbled away as brutal honesty corrodes the bonds that had seemed so tight.
This increasing darkness works so well because Squires establishes the utterly charming nature of this couple from the very first line and director Andrew Twyman has cast the play perfectly in Greg Lockett and Clare Latham. Repartee bounces back and forth, first meetings are wittily reenacted and a real sense of shared intimacy sparks from the stage, dominated by the double bed at the heart of Emily May Sions’ design. And as they begin to probe into their hopes and fears at the prospect of parenthood, it’s hard not empathise deeply with them, such is their likeability.
But as deeper truths are unearthed, such as Sheryl’s fears of how society’s tendency to exclusively label biracial children as black might impact the relationship she has with her son, and the complexity of Richard’s family history and the terrible racism suffered by his parents, they are both unprepared for how the other will react. Squires absolutely nails the quandary of white liberal guilt, the impossibility of trying to show empathy about a situation you can know nothing of, but also how it can be twisted into a weapon, to shamelessly try and win any argument.
Which is where Don’t Smoke in Bed both fascinates and slightly frustrates, the unending complexity of hurt and heartbreak as race intersects with gender, class clashes with cultural difference, personal experience battles with political significance. Squires offers no easy answers, for there are no easy answers especially in a world where race relations remain so potently charged, and thus the play ends up mightily thought-provoking. And because you really root for Richard and Sheryl, thanks to the dynamic, eloquent work of Lockett and Latham, you just want more for them.