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BWW Reviews: BUT I CD ONLY WHISPER, Arcola Theatre, November 2 2012

Beau Willie Brown (Adetomiwa Edun) is a violent man with a raw charisma that brings women (and men) close enough for him to hurt them. Going nowhere in a deadend town, he signs up to join the US Army, leaving behind his pregnant girlfriend Crystal (Emanuella Cole), his on/off lover Genevieve (Sian Breckin) and his hanger-on friend Marvin (Tunji Kasim).

He is posted to 'Nam where he brokers his street instincts into impressive soldiering under old hand Marshall (Paul McEwan), but what he witnesses amidst the chaos of the battlefield comes back to haunt him once home again in the USA.

Accused of a heinous crime, he is interrogated by psychologist Dr Drummond (Cornell S John), who must decide whether Brown - suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, black and poor in white America - is responsible for his actions.

Kristiana Colon's but i cd only whisper (at the Arcola Theatre until 1 December) slowly reveals Beau Willie's life through flashbacks, thereby telling the story of African-Americans until the point at which Dr King's Civil Rights movement lights a bonfire under the segregationist Jim Crow laws. Adetomiwa Edun captures the speech rhythms of the uneducated but intelligent black man whose rage is twisted back towards those he loves, with impressive musicality. In Cornell S John's performance, there's a different kind of rage - that of the black man who has made his peace with the system, but knows it is wrong. Emanuella Cole brings out the fate of the black woman, yearning for something more than having children and hiding bruises.

Produced in the Arcola's new (and rather chilly) underground studio space, the play is at its best when the characters speak to the audience, telling of their lives in gently spoken monologues that make the pervasive violence all the more shocking. It's less successful in building dramatic tension - possibly because late 60s America / Vietnam / Civil Rights has been mined so extensively on stage and screen. For all the distance of two generations past and with an African American about to secure a second term in the White House, the central message of how a dysfunctional society begets dysfunctional families within which women are the most abused, remains as relevant today as ever - abroad or at home. 

(Photo Richard Davenport)

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