Dramas come in many flavours, but few come more disturbing or transfixing as Kwame Kwei-Armah’s “Elmina’s Kitchen”, a play about Yardie violence in the London Borough of Hackney. He dissects the brutality within Hackney’s murder mile, where Yardies run protection rackets and respect comes through the barrel of a gun, to reveal the human face of the people who live there.
When a minority community are disempowered through racism and discrimination, the marginalised community often responds by building an alternative culture. The culture they build can be one that re-enforces positive elements from their traditional values and beliefs or one that can internalise their own repression, elevating the very forces that have led to their own alienation.
Kwei-Armah’s play is about the alienation that has led to the violence and Yardie street culture that dominates in some black communities. In the programme notes he tells us he is specifically concerned about the ‘rites of passage of young black youths’ and why ‘the badge of blackness is earned through the facade of criminality’. He says he is asking through the medium of this play ‘What kind of character does it take to supersede their circumstances?’ In this play Kwei-Armah holds up a mirror in which violent black youth culture is sternly reflected and in doing so he shatters the false illusion upon which it is built.
The story is about Deli, a black man who has served time for GBH but has now reformed and is trying to make a living from his late mother’s West Indian Cafe. He is struggling to maintain the respect of his 19-year-old son who calls him a ‘punk’ (Slang meaning: a loud but insignificant, contemptible person), keep the local Yardie strongman at arms length from his business and deal with the anger he feels towards his negligent father, Clifton.
Shaun Parkes gives a powerful performance as the Yardie strongman, Digger, who seeks to emulate the Jamaican Yardie sub-culture and hates the ‘British nigger’ who plays by the white man’s rules. He flips from telling jokes to praising acts of violence with a casual ease that immediately warns you that this is a very dangerous person.
Paterson Joseph also gives a good performance as Deli, and one cannot help but feel sympathy for this father desperately struggling to save his son from a life of crime and who wishes to be a better father to his son, than his own father was to him.
George Harris is excellent as Deli’s cheesy father Clinton, he has an easygoing charm that covers his lack of authenticity with a veneer of affability, that when peeled away reveals a lonely and dejected man. Emmanuel Idowu performs well as Ashley, Deli’s son, he extrudes the feeling of indifference that troubled teenagers so readily have towards their parents, also Oscar James produces a convincing performance as Baygee . Dona Croll is wonderfuly warm as Anastasia, Deli’s feisty kitchen assistant who quotes Tolstoy and Larkin, and who takes no ‘dis’ (disrespect) from anyone, especially a man. However, she carries her own grief that Croll movingly reveals without sentimentality.
One knows almost from the very beginning that this play will end in violence but nothing prepares you for it, and when it finally arrives it is delivered with an emotional punch that leaves you breathless. Though the violence is nothing more than one man pointing a gun at another I found myself wanting to look away as the scene is so poignant.
Angus Jackson has done a masterful job in directing this play. He slowly builds up the tension between the characters and involves us in their predicament in such a concealed manner that when the play reaches its climax I was surprised by how much I sympathised for each of the characters.
Bunny Christie’s stage design of the interior of Deli’s café looks slightly too smart to be the dingy diner that the text suggests. The café is decorated above the counter with pictures of black dignitaries such as Nelson Mandala, Martin Luther King, Sojourner Truth, Marcus Garvey etc. It is a constant reminder of an alternative black source of inspiration to the violent street culture that Kwei-Armah rightly despises. However, these pictures kept me pondering why Kwei-Armah did not draw upon this source to feed Deli’s inspiration for an alternative life than the Yardie sub-culture he is desperately seeking to extricate himself from? The main character Deli seems to have capitulated to accepting the ‘free market consumer culture’ as being the only alternative open to him, rather than draw upon his own diverse and rich black inheritance.
A powerful disturbing drama, that is well written and well acted.
Kwame Kwei-Armah, so we are told in the programme for his new play Elmina's Kitchen, wants to 'tell damn good stories.' Well, with all the good will in the world, Elmina's Kitchen isn't one. As a study or cross section of daily life it also lets itself down, and the Cottesloe's other tenant, "Scenes from the Big Picture", does it with far more sensitivity to human relationships and emotional motivation, and depicts varying generations with a more convincing touch. Angus Jackson's pacy production, which doesn't know if it wants to be an episode of "Desmond's" or "The Bill", doesn't help to bridge the gap between comedy and the sinister, and neither aspect is entirely satisfying in Kwei-Armah's writing.
Set in Deli's slightly dingy West Indian restaurant in Hackney (an effectively spicy space designed by Bunny Christie), Elmina's Kitchen ambitiously tries to cover a lot of ground; Yardie culture and various attempts to escape and enter it, parent-child relationships, the problems with racial stereotyping, celebrating cultural inheritance, and the list goes on and on. The problem is, none of this ground is well explored, with issues and plot devices unsubtly popping up and disappearing as fast as you can say 'Guiness Punch'. As a result, the characters' language and their motivations come across as unclear or two-dimensional, and their philosophies are reduced to trite phrases: life is, apparently 'like prison, but with bigger cells.' Elmina's Kitchen appears therefore, as a breeding ground for the mundane and inconsequential, a pointless piece, since the writing fails to make any strong or coherent arguments, even though it is indiscreetly laced with ideas and agendas.
Watching Jackson's production, you may also feel as unconvinced by some of the acting as you may be by the play; Paterson Joseph, whilst providing a strong, lively, entrepreneurial edge to Deli, struggling owner of the restaurant, comes across as too clean cut for the character his son describes as a 'punk'. His portrayal OF Deli's struggle to escape his history and to give his son and himself a better future has a one-dimensionality to it, as Joseph rarely displays much variety or transition. Sorry to raise this, but his accent, which makes temporary journeys to Hackney, Hampstead and the West Indies, serves as another example of the production's muddled ground. Elsewhere, Shaun Parkes (Digger) provides a superb performance, seamlessly juggling the menace and comedy of his character, his absence from the stage haunting the proceedings.
Hopefully, this play will fulfil Nicholas Hytner's aims to have more diversity in the National Theatre's audiences. Sadly, it's a pedestrian (but not bad) work with which to do so.
Production photo Ivan Kyncl
Notices from the popular press....
MADDY COSTA for THE GUARDIAN says, "Kwei-Armah writes exquisitely, in a language that is peppery, poetic and full of wit." IAN JOHNS for THE TIMES says, "Elmina’s Kitchen builds into a powerful, of-the-moment drama and a heartfelt plea for finding your potential without a gun. It’s a fine addition to Nicholas Hytner’s first season at the National." NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Amusing but too static first half....absolutely chilling second half."