It is not often a playwright comes along with such a distinctive voice and style that you immediately recognise their work.
I can think of very few examples, Ayckbourn, Sondheim, and Pinter, but I’ll now be adding Tristan Fynn-Aidenu to the list. What he has created, written and directed at the Brockley Jack theatre is nothing short of a modern masterpiece, with the ability to be translated into many more mediums of storytelling.
Set in the 90s, “Sweet Like Chocolate Boy” takes the timelines of Mars (Andrew Umerah) a street-smart, enthusiastic, lyrically-saturated young man about to propose to the girl of his dreams, and Bounty (Michael Levi Fatogun), a quiet, shy boy born and bred to feel out of place in a new, politically charged Black identity taking form around him whilst trying to find his own voice. The play moulds these timelines with fantasy, Garage and Jungle music to critique Black British Protest in the culturally heaving estates of London.
This play is no one thing; highlighting so many themes – Black identity, mental health, Black love, misogynoir, colourism, classism, racism, and police brutality. The intelligence of this piece is that it doesn’t stay too long on any one topic but flows through them like a beautiful low-rise tide, making strong but subtle statements, helping us understand how inherent to the characters’ worlds these issues are. How commonplace.
Fynn-Aidenu does not waste words or instruction either. As a writer, he has the staggering intelligence to weave a story together. Like an haute couture piece of fashion, every statement comes to mean something; every line of text so that by the end, you understand the dizzyingly important connections between all the characters. Here is anthology writing and storytelling at its best combined with an insightful level of direction. I cannot see anyone else being able to make sense of the text the way he has done. Similar to debbie tucker green’s “ear for eye”, a complete work, a complete world in text-form. If he had not directed this piece, it would have sorely lacked for it. Sweet Like Chocolate Boy could easily find a home at the Royal Court testament to the versatility of the direction witnessed.
The acting is phenomenal. Veronica Beatrice Lewis is a powerhouse performer, blending effortlessly between different characters as the main voice of females across this unconventional love story between Mars and Bounty. Her performances have so many dots and bridges that you must pay attention to see where the story is going. But more than that, Lewis is a supremely talented actress. Without saying a word, she can come on stage and embody any one of her characters so vividly, you know who she is going to be before uttering a word.
The performance of the night, however, goes to Andrew Umerah who has very rightly been nominated for an Offie. There is no moment he does not make us feel with his performance. He hangs onto his stakes so deeply and yet with such a masterfully light touch, whilst being exceptionally present. I instinctively know no two performances of his would ever be the same. His variation of characters is the most contrasting across the four actors, mainly because he varies from an older wiser, near militant (think Malcolm X times MLK Jr) ‘Prophet’, all the way to this optimistic and sadly beautiful youth ‘Mars’ with many other characters thrown in between. He is also where the mental health theme gets highlighted the most and this is a mantle he does not bear lightly. He is the kind of actor who brings repeat audiences to a show, just to see what he will be that night.
However, gush though I might, there really was not a weak performance at all on the stage. All the actors were literally and physically embodied their characters to the max. Sweet Like Chocolate Boy is not perfect. There were moments in the show where it’s difficult to follow the dialogue, for reasons such as enunciation or slang that you would have to be from the ‘world of‘ to understand. There are also moments where the introduction of themes like fantasy can be jolting, but the feeling of questioning doesn’t last long as, like with batter, everything gets incorporated or folded in seamlessly so that it all adds to the layers of sense and truth. Also… It’s a Fynn-Aidenu piece, were you expecting it to be easy?
In other words, go in and leave your mind wide open, preconceptions at the door. You will be richer for the experience.