BWW Review: PRINCESS & THE HUSTLER, Bristol Old Vic
Beauty pageants and bus boycotts seldom belong on the same page, but in Chinonyerem Odimba's joyously playful and beautifully played Princess & the Hustler, they're brought together by Princess James, a flamboyant young girl who is black, beautiful and brilliantly funny.
Odimba's play, also black, beautiful and brilliantly funny, focuses on an oft-forgotten and unforgivable time in Bristol's past, the Bus Boycott of 1963, and is part of theatre collective Eclipse's ground-breaking programming of Black British narratives.
As the sister to Junior, a nascent photographer engaged in the fight for civil rights, with her no-nonsense mother Mavis only just earning enough to finance her family and her estranged father knocking on the front door with a new daughter in tow, Princess's narrative is overflowing with new-fangled influences.
Yet, it centres on Princess's natural hair as much as her city's history, as her principles must be as high as her heels and her hopes if she's to participate in a pageant against girls who haven't hacked off all their hair.
Though the bus boycotts - and the bright patterns and battling prints of Simon Kenny's vibrant set - are symbols of a Bristol of yore, the subtler observations on black beauty are blisteringly relevant: black Bristolians fought for their civil rights, and Princess is fighting for her right to be black and beautiful.
The narrative is knotty and never very neat, and feels a little chaotic in its structure, but the story successfully foregrounds its characters' internal struggles in the larger systemic injustices they face.
There's stunning intensity when the internal and the injustices intersect: from the violent truth of the protest fracturing Mavis's motherly protection of her family as Junior returns from the picket line as a victim of racially motivated attack, to their father's unfiltered outpouring of emotion, amplified by Aideen Malone's focused lighting, as their prayers come true and their fight is victorious.
And it is a victory, but Obimba's vibrant, ambitious writing and Dawn Walton's bright, liberated direction deserve to be admired on Bristol Old Vic's big stage, as its wit is bursting out of the more diminutive Weston Studio.
Though she's also diminutive, Kudzai Sitima's Princess is a determined, believable little miss with dubious dance moves, bouncing with a liberated abandon that Donna Berlin's brilliant mother Mavis has forbidden for herself to afford freedom for her baby and Fode Simbo's loving brother. But Berlin's beauty and biting wit are ablaze when Seun Shote's lovable layabout waltzes back in.
Of the relationships beyond the Jameses, some are grown-in, like Mavis and Jade Yourell's brash, nosy neighbour Margot, and Junior and his earnest, boyish best mate Romayne Andrews, and others are newly blooming, with Princess's father bequeathing her Emily Burnett's girlish sister in his absence.
Black, beautiful and celebratory, Princess and the Hustler is Bristol history with a beating heart.
Princess and the Hustler at Bristol Old Vic until 23 February
Photo credit: The Other Richard