Poetry and theatre – two words that might give flashbacks to an alienating GCSE English syllabus.
But Yomi Sode’s ‘…and breathe’, a live theatrical adaptation of poems from the third section of his first poetry collection ‘Manorism’, is far from alienating …
The hour-long performance follows Junior (David Jonsson), a young Black man who deals with the grief of seeing his family member, Big Mummy, die as a result of cancer. This scenario gives rise to a variety of poetic passages – some introspective, some heart-breaking, some comedic – which explore the themes of family, inherited trauma, and Black masculinity.
It was refreshing to see a play that centred a Nigerian family, not for the purpose of exploring trauma as a result of racism, but to explore the comedy and tragedy experienced within this family unit. The audience, for example, particularly enjoyed in-jokes about Nigerian families, such as how your “cousin” is never really your cousin, or how your “uncle” might be younger than you, or about how Junior’s aunty, upon finding out that he can speak Yoruba, chooses to solely address him in Yoruba. The stigma associated with seeing a Black man cry – from Junior asking whether people on the bus would be “uncomfortable seeing a Black man cry?”, or his mum laughing about seeing his uncle crying since finding out about Big Mummy’s illness, or Junior’s uncle instructing him not to cry at the funeral – was also a reoccurring and pertinent theme.
Throughout the performance, the stage is solely occupied by Jonsson and Femi Temowo, who sat upstage at a desk, underscoring Jonsson’s performance with live musical accompaniment. Jonsson and Temowo effectively bounced off each other – particularly effective moments being when Jonsson would conduct Temowo, instructing him to cut out the music, or play louder, or to play upbeat music that might counteract the grief he was feeling.
There were many moments in which Jonsson’s performance excelled. He had a naturally charismatic command of the stage; elevated by moments of physical dexterity, such as moving through the “Tetris” of the commuter crowd, and squatting on a single leg with his other leg crossed over to mimic a white woman sitting in the hospital. Jonsson also delivered a particularly comical imitation of Big Mummy towards the end of the play, excellently performing the mannerisms of this Nigerian matriarch. At his best, Jonsson’s performance reminded me of Arinze Kene’s in Misty.
There were moments, however, in which Jonsson’s performance was slightly weaker. Initially, for example, there were some problems with diction and projection. Some of his earlier multi-roling, such as when he imitated Ade or his aunt, while still sharp in its transitions, were not as effectively distinct in their characterisation as his later imitations of Big Mummy or the pastor. There were also moments in which it felt that he was performing the outward gestures of grief or anger, without convincingly conveying that Junior felt these emotions.
Nevertheless, Jonsson effectively navigated the difficult alternations in comedy and tragedy of Sode’s poetry. The various elements of the production – Temowo’s music and the projections of daunting natural landscapes on the back wall of the theatre – effectively worked together to create a unique and moving portrait of family and grief.
As a result, instead of feeling alienated by Sode’s poetry, as the warm golden light filled the auditorium at the end of the performance, there was almost the feeling that at the end of a difficult year for everyone, the audience was being hugged; we were being healed.
And Breathe… runs at The Almeida Theatre until July 10th 2021. Find out more and book tickets here.