Caryl Phillips’ debut play Strange Fruit is sure to take you on a rollercoaster of emotions. From laughter to fear to tears. You’ll leave feeling like your birthday, Halloween and pregnancy have hit you all at once!
This moving show, set in the British 80s, is centred on the conflict of being ‘too white’ or ‘too black’. However, there’s a twist… Vivian, a Caribbean mother, fully immerses herself into the British culture at the cost of her Caribbean heritage. This proves as an unsettling contrast against her sons who find that their British identity conflicts too heavily with their pro-black mind-set.
This characterisation is extremely intriguing as you often find the opposite of immigrant families whereby parents desperately try to keep their uninterested children connected to their roots.
As a kid, you often cringe at your differences and find them embarrassing. You want to assimilate. You want to be white. Your mother tongue feels like a chain tying you down to everything you want to run away from.
However, this play presents an alternative. Strange Fruit displays the reality to some, where it is instead the parents doing anything to fit into this foreign land whilst their children are left to their own devices to find out about their familial past.
Errol’s ability to seamlessly switch from a British vernacular to Caribbean English makes one question whether he really is ‘acting’ black. These natural and effortless transitions exhibit the reality of youth in the diaspora.
Their identity may be split, it may be awkward but it isn’t rehearsed. Errol isn’t ‘acting black’, he’s acting himself.
However, Vivian, his mother, possesses an exaggerated English accent that is somewhat mocked through its comical contrast to her sons.
Many in the Caribbean are taught to dot the i’s and cross the t’s when it comes to their spoken English. They are often taught that ‘the Queen’s English’ is the only English. Vivian essentially sees perfection as being whiteness.
In this way, Phillips presents an accent as being both what an individual is and what they desire to be.
Despite these conflicting characterisations, the domestic setting is an accurate representation of how, for many ethnic minorities, the home is a community space that all feel welcomed to.
The multiple entrances to the family home and the audience watching from all 4 sides of the stage emphasise this openness and inclusion. There is no hiding anything, whether this is a good or bad thing…
Another relevant issue posed in this compelling play is the mental health issues that accompany migration.
Errol’s progressive mania makes the viewer feel both horrified but also a deep sadness for him as his harsh actions may be a result of being a black male in a hostile and racist 20th century British society.
This pressing theme is an upsetting reminder of the fact that ethnic minorities are much more likely to experience mental health issues, with African-Caribbean people being 3-5 times more likely to be diagnosed and hospitalised for schizophrenia.
Errol’s behaviour is uncomfortable to watch but is even more difficult to live…
Interestingly, there is no clear mention of the actual Caribbean country that Vivian’s family are originally from. The closest reference we receive is “the island”, this being a painful reminder of how immigrating can cause you to forget your roots.
There is also a vagueness around the mentions of Africa which is spoken about as one holistic place but essentially being their ultimate destination. The lack of specificity also stresses on the extent of their distance and lack of knowledge.
Africa is presented as being a fantasy destination- a place that even Errol’s white girlfriend, Shelley, aspires to retreat to, creating a comical undertone to their baseless dream.
Alvin’s rationality and ability to console both his ‘too white’ mother and ‘too black’ brother makes me question if we should all aspire to level ourselves on his middle ground.
But is this easier said than done? Certain situations may leave you feeling more British whereas others inspire you to champion your differences.
Despite being the voice of reason, Alvin only physically enters the play during the second half. Hence, the inevitable distance that the audience feels from Alvin may be leaving us oblivious to his faults.
The ambiguity of the ending makes the narrative one that is relatable and open to being claimed by all. This story isn’t confined to Vivian’s home. This story isn’t confined to Caribbean immigrants.
It’s the story of any ethnic minority trying desperately to juggle two personas, two truths, two lands that refuse to house you.
The lack of resolution demonstrates how the struggles of Vivian’s family and that of any immigrant family is an ongoing struggle that doesn’t necessarily have a neat ending.
There is no escaping the hardships of an immigrant, it’s your daily reality.
Source of Image: Bush Theatre