What are the chances that the Durham Miners’ Gala will make an appearance in two back-to-back plays? This is the case in this double bill animated by young writers from the Northeast. On both occasions, the so-called Big Meeting questions the identity of young characters as they struggle to define their place in the world.
For the first playwright Olivia Hannah in Braids (??), the annual event is particularly busy. On the one hand, it’s a vibrant expression of the working-class community to which Rochelle Goldie’s teenager Jasmine belongs. On the other hand, it is an almost exclusively white occasion.
The daughter of a white mother and an absent black father, Jasmine grew up in a white society and ignored the homogeneous face of the gala. But when she is joined by Xsara-Sheneille Pryce as Abeni, who grew up in a racially mixed Manchester, the under-representation becomes apparent. It is difficult for Jasmine to know which identity to claim.
Like the playwright, the actors in Kemi-Bo Jacobs’ production have a keen understanding of the pushing and pulling tensions of adolescent friendship, here intensified by their contrasting experiences of racism and cultural identity. The direction of the piece tends to drift, but at best it raises tough questions about how young black women can define themselves in a world that is only too fast-paced to provide them with definitions.
The gala is featured again in Cheer Up Slug (??) when David Fallon’s Will watches a group of upscale Durham college students laughing at the marching bands. The thought of going to college with such people horrifies him. However, to study elsewhere would be to reject one’s own culture.
But playwright Tamsin Daisy Rees ‘real concern in this scintillating and disturbing double, directed by Anna Ryder, is less with Will than with Jackie Edwards’ Bean. She’s a quick-witted and idiosyncratic 16-year-old, coming out of a toxic relationship with an abusive boy only to find that her longtime friend, Will, is hardly more trustworthy.
The tone shifts from comedic to unsettling, to daring touches of muddy theatricality, as Fallon and Edwards capture the awkwardness and exuberance of young people seeking definition with sometimes painful results.