In 1964, Sidney Poitier became the first Black man to win Best Actor at the Academy Awards. This is history — everyone knows this (or at least they should). He was a powerhouse, a monument, a beacon of inspiration and hope for Black actors and audience members everywhere looking for someone who looked like them.

But how did he get there?

Credit: Marc Brenner

This is a central question in Ryan Calais Cameron’s shimmeringly agile pressure-cooker drama about a meeting between Poitier (Ivanno Jeremiah), a white writer, Bobby, (Ian Bonar), and legal executive, Mr. Parks (Daniel Lapaine), early on in Poitier’s career. We open in Parks’ office, arranged with convincing Art Deco designs and cool pastels by Frankie Bradshaw. Parks is shooting the shit with Bobby, helping him figure out his place in the cutthroat, nerve-jangling world of 1950s Hollywood. There’s a screenplay for a story in which a black male character has been given the at-the-time rare qualities of having edge, depth and humanity. (Or so we’re told.) Poitier has been invited in to sign onto the project after being offered the role, but what he expects to be a quick in-and-out before he gets back to his ribhouse in Harlem turns into a high-stakes and increasingly brutal confrontation with a system that wants to use him for its own ends.

Credit: Marc Brenner

What’s so powerful about Cameron’s script is not just the way it addresses the ‘issue’ of race in Hollywood, incorporating many familiar stories of typecasting, cultural presumption and hoop-jumping assimilationism, but how it presents this as one aspect of a much broader and more complex chess board puzzle of American capitalist imperialism — the Red Scare. It’s also a brilliant study in pacing and the dialogue is as crisp as any Golden Age hit, incorporating a non-stop flow of repartee, idioms and references — these are people who know how to turn a phrase, and the actors pull this off with flair.

Lapaine is odious as the manipulative yet unyieldingly witty Parks — capturing all the stinking characteristics of the worst of the industry with a bouncy and original verve that spares him becoming a stereotype. Jeremiah’s Poitier has immediate and irresistible presence, and it’s fascinating to observe the code-switching at play. Bonar’s hopelessly caught-in-the-middle Bobby is a mess of anxiety, aspiration and moral confusion. Fragments and anecdotes of Poitier’s life are deployed expertly to paint a portrait of this up-and-coming Bahamian-American star, with the increasingly ‘jovial’ drinking session lowering the barriers and slowly drawing out the truth of the deal being struck.

Credit: Marc Brenner

Revisiting historical figures through lesser documented moments like this gives us power to see and understand where we’ve come from, framing contemporary politics through the eyes of decisions that were made decades ago. How this all takes place through agreements, contracts and partnerships is laid bare, a very particular quality of drawing room politics driving a gut punch to the audience and Poitier, who’s forced to make a choice between the system and his principles, ‘smart’ actions and his emotions. 

Credit: Marc Brenner

It’s challenging, and that’s how it should be: a wordy, heady piece that bristles with the sum of its parts and ticks over into the minds of its audience, as sound designer Beth Duke’s incessantly ticking clock counts down the seconds to the play’s fist-up conclusion. Perhaps at times it does ask a lot of us to keep up, but, as a repeated motif states, without offering something ourselves, we won’t get very far in this business. How wonderfully ironic that it’s the white oppressor who makes this claim. And again the piece is off.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Retrograde is on at the Kiln Theatre until the 27th of May – tickets and info here!

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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