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Joe Guy – Broader than Broadway

by Ko Banerjea
7 Jan 2008 • Comment (1) • Print
Posted: General Issue [0] | Review
 

Back in the day (well, the seventies and eighties at least), one of
the more puzzling aspects of the 36 bus ride from Lewisham to
Paddington was the nature and frequency of the sectarian banter
aboard. ‘Blubber mout’, ‘Picky head’, ‘Bubu lips’ were the main
offenders but the usual suspects, far from being the expected BOM
(British Movement – the ‘O’ was a target, decades before Public Enemy)
skin candidates from Bermondsey, were almost always British Caribbean
youths. The object of their derision: Africans. The journey, from
south to west London, could take upwards of an hour, and the abuse
would intensify in those areas, like the Queens Road, Peckham, where
there were large African and Caribbean communities living cheek by
jowl.

British playwright, Roy Williams, explores these tensions through the
goldfish bowl of football celebrity in his latest offering, Joe Guy,
which has enjoyed a successful run at the Soho Theatre this autumn.
But it’s a drama which is about more than mere sectarianism, tracing a
journey at once far more epic than and yet as frequently banal as the
route of the 36, weaving its way through streams of physical and
mental traffic.

The eponymous Joe first bursts into life in a haze of flashing bulbs
and hangers-on. Hailed on stage by the attendant paparazzi, WAG
wannabes swooning in the wings, his boorish, narcissistic behaviour is
the very epitome of modern, Premiership footballer. His retinue of
agents, fixers and casual sex partners is left in no doubt by his
continuous tirades that their sole purpose is to massage his ego or
any other swollen dysfunction. But every so often something catches in
his voice that encourages us to look beyond the braggadoccio, the
expensive threads and the misanthropy. And what we see is a very
different Joe, one with a name, a direction and a heart: Joe Boateng.

The stage sets are simple and this certainly helps with the flashback
structure of the play, from penthouse to pavement, or more precisely
the London streets of Joe’s adolescence, where luxury has been swapped
for another kind of labour. Now we’re introduced to Joe the good
natured, hard working young man flipping burgers but dreaming of
bigger things: dodging tackles in the park and insults in the burger
bar. His chief tormentor is a British Caribbean youth named Marcus who
it is revealed went to school with Joe and is simply carrying on where
he left off in the classroom. He parodies Joe’s strong Ghanaian accent
and his eagerness to learn at school before shaking him down for his
loose change – another schoolyard throwback – and calling him ‘Kunta’,
in a vile reference to ‘Kunta Kinte’, the slave protagonist of Alex
Hailey’s 1970s ‘faction’ and Television miniseries, ‘Roots’.

Equally as disturbing is the obvious pleasure drawn from the spectacle
by a young white girl who has also been taunting the earnest young man
behind the counter and ends up leaving the fast food bar with Marcus
in the warm glow of their respective bigotries. It is left to her
Caribbean friend, Naomi, who clearly has eyes for Joe, to point out a
subtle shift that seems to be taking place in both his method and
manner. When it’s just the two of them speaking she is initially
bemused, then intrigued, by Joe’s faltering use of such local patois
as ‘chillax’, ’seh’ and ‘wha a’gwan?’. She asks him why he would
adopt the mannerisms of the very person that is abusing him and he is
unable to provide a satisfactory answer. Indeed his search for an
adequate response is the substantive and philosophical core of this
play. And much like the 36, there are important detours.

From the burger bar, Joe is fast forwarded into the bearpit of
Premiership football. But there is overlap here too. We see him pacing
up and down on the subs’ bench, anxiously awaiting his chance to
impress his manager and the expectant thousands in the stands. Joe
seizes his moment and his footballing star is born. However, Williams’
astute writing details not just the euphoria of the goal but the
seething backdrop of the bench and its curious echo of the burger bar
dynamic. Joe the young apprentice is initially shown being bullied by
his white team mate, Rod, who defers to senior British Caribbean
striker, nicknamed ‘Master Blaster’, who in turn soon feels threatened
by the youngster’s obvious talent. It’s a familiar tale of white and
Caribbean complicity in the bullying of Africans, but this being a Roy
Williams vehicle, the play never settles for such clumsy certainties.

There is a telling scene where Joe, reprising De Niro as Travis Bickle
in Taxi Driver, reworks ‘you talkin’ to me?’ so that it becomes a
panto, patois transformation of the mild mannered African lad into
street tough black, British youth. He wraps his mouth and his mind
around the requisite terminology – ‘bro, bruv, chillax’ – each phrase
killing off another small part of his African heritage. Abdul Salis,
who gives a sensational performance as Joe, is particularly good here:
whilst he reinvents Joe Boateng as Joe Guy with all the
over-zealousness of the born again, with a look here and a vernacular
stumble there he also gives a touching performance of someone who is
lost: someone sweet, looking for love and looking for answers.

To that end, ‘Joe Guy’ is also a kind of lament for the love that’s
gone in the way that we live now. When Joe goes to see his father it
is clear that it is the younger man, for all his material success, who
is floundering. Williams is pitch perfect in rendering the pathos, the
disappointment and the love in Boateng Snr’s eyes. Although his son is
a Premiership footballer, it’s the father who casts a giant shadow. He
tells Joe that Caribbean folk are ‘messed up inside, cos they’ve got
white blood in them. They hate us; they hate us because we are pure.
Because we were not stupid enough to get caught, and get taken away in
chains.’ But this is no Alf Garnett fired by hate. Rather the
‘observation’ is offered between cups of tea and without malice. What
troubles the father more is the vacuousness of his son’s existence -
obscene wages, empty sex, a life without meaning or regard. He reminds
Joe that whilst he may never have earned the kind of money now falling
into his son’s lap, he at least had the satisfaction of doing real
work, with his hands, and living an honest life. He is a proud man and
it is his pride, too, that points out that Joe now looks and sounds
‘like a typical Jamo’. Fathers and sons; immigrants and presumed
ingrates. It’s a beautiful scene, subtle on the surface, devastating
in content.

If the trappings of celebrity have sent Joe hurtling off the rails,
the very different trajectory of his childhood tormentor, Marcus,
offers an interesting counterbalance. Joe, spending a night in the
cells after a drink driving incident, is astonished to see his old
adversary playing a diplomatic role in police uniform. ‘Nah, man,
seriously – which cell are you in?’ is all he can say, his mind unable
to comprehend the transformation of his nemesis from bullying rude boy
to kind hearted officer. The direction, and the writing, is humane
without tipping over into schmaltz, although this scene perhaps loses
some of his emotional heft in the too neat resolution of Marcus’
cruelties through his born again Christian faith. Whilst there are
clear parallels with Joe’s own rebirth as Joe Guy, this was the one
moment in the play where the dynamic felt overly contrived. Surely the
battle between spirit and pleasure, ancestry and aspiration, is, like
so many other forms of modern warfare, asymmetric?

Staged by British-African theatre company Tiata Fahodzi (The Estate,
2006; The Gods are not to Blame, 2005), Femi Elufowoju, jr’s generally
snappy direction maintains the momentum achieved by Roy Williams’
fast paced dialogue and Abdul Salis’ visceral central performance.
Yukiko Tsukamoto’s set design, minimal and uncluttered, is the ideal
foil for this one act, no intermission rollercoaster, although a
little more urgency wouldn’t have gone amiss from some of those
figures working behind the scenes. But that’s a minor quibble.

Williams’ plays, whether looking at footballers or football hooligans,
police or thieves, always flirt with stereotypes and our ‘need to
know’. What they do best though is open up those spaces that seem so
familiar – burger bars, football matches, pubs and lock-up – and
sprinkle them with something more than stereotype. Perhaps something
better for not lacking in drama or compassion. The faultlines of
blackness, the dreams of immigrants, the calculations of white folk:
Joe Guy is a story that’s bigger than theatre, broader than broadway,
but defiantly of the here and now.

I used to be one of those people who looked away, made no eye contact
while the sabre rattling was in full flow on the 36. Story tellers
like Roy Williams, and the redemptive purchase of their landscapes,
mean there’s no longer any reason to avert that gaze.

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All posts by: Ko Banerjea | Email | Website

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One Response »

  1. Good review. This play was heavy. Particularly good was the “transformation” scene. Do you think it would work as a film? One thing I hadn’t seen before was the banter on the sub’s bench, whereby the “master blaster” character, though insecure and bitchy, was shown to be very intelligent and witty in his put-downs and braggery.

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