Thursday, March 29, 2018

Me You Us Them – an accessible play about race, power, entitlement and expectation (Terra Nova at Accidental Theatre until 29 March)

Me You Us Them examines what race means in Northern Ireland. A web of characters from Armagh, Belfast, Donegal, Hong Kong, Iran, Jamaica, Nigeria, and Sudan – often from more than one of those at a time – step forward on the stage and deliver short vignettes that reveal their experiences of life.

The Accidental Theatre audience sit around three sides of the black wooden stage. Melissa Dean and Stefan Dunbar reach into boxes and pull out clothes and accessories to transform into each new set of characters, while three chairs are sometimes used to give shape to the set.

Playwright Andrea Montgomery has built up characters based on workshops with women and men who have shared their stories. Many of the stories feature overt racism – a girl being taunted on the bus, a nurse being dismissed by a patient because she isn’t white – while others explore (in a very Northern Ireland kind of way) whether inappropriate thoughts and desires could as racism or passive racism while the audience chalk them up to creepy and pervy behaviour.

Stefan Dunbar’s eyes widen as he steps into the persona of a young Belfast man who’s certain that he’s not racist but doesn’t want that type of person living in his aunt’s old house. “Our street is our world and it belongs to us!” Dunbar switches from being mild-mannered to being red-faced and angry between characters, though it’s his conversation between two ladies from the Malone Road that stuck in my mind long after the show finished.

A Jamaican nurse tells a few home truths as she dissects local identity divisions, notes a shared hatred of the English (another form of generally accepted racism) and suggests “you’re all the same when you go to the toilet”. Melissa Dean shifts comfortably between ages and accents. Her face continues acting even when she has no lines.

Over the 70 minutes, connections between the characters are gently revealed. The linkages are not too forced, and thankfully don’t distract from the quality of the messaging. In fact, the joy of the well-crafted characters is their unreliability. Conversations, even ones that start out fractious, expose unexpected nuances. There’s a glimmer of recognition when the young Belfast man confronts a Nigerian girl and discovers that she doesn’t want to live in the house either.

Andrea Montgomery has a knack for writing and directing 'awkward' scenes in which the misalignment of characters’ expectations and assumptions is revealed and the audience are left wanting to slide under their cushioned seats as the embarrassment grows. It's fabulously uncomfortable.

Me You Us Them is an accessible play about race, power, entitlement and expectation. It stops well short of explicitly attempting to make audiences feel guilty through over-moralising, but if they’re really listening, then there’s plenty of material to inspire introspection. The production continues in Accidental Theatre until Thursday 29 April. While the run is fully sold out, it may return later in the year.

Photo credit: Neil Harrison

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