The opening of PlayFight was immediately gripping: Deptford Town Hall was suddenly filled with smoke and the sound of a car crashing. Then, lights up: we see the figure of Kai (played by Braulio Chimbembe) lying on the ground after being hit by a car. Between life and death, all of a sudden, Kai sees the figure of TJ (played by Joshua Okusanya), his best friend who has recently died, dressed all in white – even with a white durag – approaching him. And so the rest of the play commences as TJ’s presence triggers the boys to remember how they became best friends, as well as the events that eventually tore them apart.
The crux of Kai and TJ’s fallout is Zara, the boys’ female best friend (played by Cece Cox). As the trio grew older, it seems Kai and TJ are both developed feelings for Zara. One day, in the playground, they are caught fighting over her, pushing and harassing Zara in the mix, causing both boys to be expelled. After this point, Kai and Zara start attending new schools, while TJ stops attending school altogether and, instead, spends his days with one of the notorious older boys on his block.
The line between the playing and fighting of the play’s title is, then, very slim. What these two young Black boys thought was innocent play was perceived by Zara and a white teacher to be a threatening fight. Algaratnam’s writing cleverly allows such grey areas to co-exist: she is not looking for a single person to blame for why TJ ends up getting involved in crime, but the multiplication of factors that contribute to this decision. One such factor being TJ’s own reluctance to be vulnerable and open up about his feelings, which Okusanya brilliantly revealed in a moving monologue about the pressure on Black men to appear strong and invulnerable.
At times, however, the play felt more caught up in the action – telling us step-by-step how TJ, Kai and Zara became best friends, how TJ committed suicide and how Kai tried to avenge his death – rather than focusing on creating distinctive characters with specific motivations. A lot of the dialogue, for example, seemed more focused on outlining issues – for example the racism of teachers or the generational difference between Black parents encouraging their sons to work within a racist system, while their sons try to bring the system crashing down – than telling us about who TJ and Kai actually are – their goals, their motivations and why they mean so much to each other.
For me, this meant that the ending of the play fell a little flat: the house lights came up and, as the audience waited to see whether Kai would survive the car accident or not, Okusanya directly addressed the audience, criticising us for being spectators to the play’s depiction of the suffering of two Black men. Instead, Okusanya helped Chimbembe up, refusing to conclude the play with another image of a Black man dying; instead, concluding the play with an image of two Black men supporting each other. While I support the sentiment of this conclusion, it seemed to contradict the entirety of the previous action: all we had seen before was the suffering of these two Black boys at the hands of a racist education system, and now we were being told that that wasn’t what the play was about?
Nevertheless, it was clear throughout the performance that the cast and crew cared passionately about this play. The focus was always clear on why and how these two young boys had managed to get involved with violence at such a young age, and never on glamourising or gratuitously representing this violence. In general, Leian John-Baptiste’s direction made effective use of the space in Deptford Town Hall, dynamically leading the audience’s gaze around the room. Sound design by REZON8 also effectively supported the story by incorporating the soundscape of drill music with remixes of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and Amazing Grace.
Altogether, there were many great aspects of PlayFight, but I left with the overall impression that the writing could have gone deeper into who TJ, Kai and Zara actually were. As the production’s extensive research and development process probably revealed, the stories in PlayFight are people’s real experiences, but perhaps the key to allowing audiences to really connect with these stories is to avoid any generalisations and to make sure that these characters are created as intimately and specifically as possible.
PlayFight is an Orison Production that plays at Deptford Town Hall from Tuesday 9th – Saturday 13th November. Find out more here.