BWW Review: THE CANARY AND THE CROW, Arcola Theatre
To his mother's delight (no pressure son), The Bird wins a scholarship to a public school and finds he's one of two black boys in a sea of white privilege. He almost goes under - but this is the story of how he kept his head above water and it asks plenty of pertinent questions about why such hard work should be necessary at all. It is, lest we forget, 2020 - but maybe that's the problem.
Daniel Ward is The Bird and gig theatre is his medium. So we get grime, rap battles and more than a touch of a Hamilton vibe, as our art form moves towards its emerging audience rather than expecting its public to move to it. This is a good thing - and it's about time. Middle Child may be in the vanguard of such initiatives in fringe theatre, but more will follow.
Ward enjoys the company of Prez 96 (Nigel Taylor), who is sometimes co-narrator on the mic, sometimes a challenger and sometimes a character in Ward's tale. Likewise two cellists (Cello and hip hop? Why not?) Rachel Barnes and Laurie Jamieson play a range of figures with perfect comic timing and PG and Barbara Wodehouse accents. There's more than just the grim smiles that come with the recognition of embarrassment in this show - there are big laughs peppered throughout the 70 minutes. And music - lots of music.
But Ward has a tale to tell and it's an important one. "He said it without saying it" he explains as he travels an hour on the bus to the kind of place where they have charity shops that have clearance sales. Somehow, for years, he navigates two worlds: "the park", home to his mate Snipes, quickly going off the rails; and "the school" where he finds a way to fit in and to thrive.
But there's a price to pay. Yes there's a bit of identity politics and that can grind the gears, but who is The Bird? Looked on as a black boy who is bright at his school (the order of those adjectives never really changes) and a bright boy too white for his black friends on the estate, he learns the nuances of both environments and makes the accommodations. It hurts though.
Years later, at Drama School, he realises that he is "An Acceptable Black" - a man who lives his life not by his own lights but at the sufferance of others - those with white privilege (whether they like it or not) and those who define the black identity (whether they like it or not). I caught an echo of Chris Rock's most famous routine for sure.
The Bird is still in the cage.
Daniel Ward's play is sometimes heavy-handed, a little too keen to make its points to an Arcola audience disappointingly monocultural on Press Night - maybe there's a story there - but sufficiently woke to know what he means without the characters toppling into caricature. And to know that it happens, more so every day, And to know that they play their part in it. And that they, and not Daniel and not Prez 96, have the solution in their hands.
Because, FFS, Daniel and all those black and brown boys and girls, men and women, have probably done enough - now it's our turn to cast off the white privilege that clings to our accents, our histories and our skin.
We'll be liberated too.
Photo The Other Richard