Retrograde

“This is a must see spine-tingling play”.

Retrograde is a new play by Ryan Calais Cameron, the award-winning writer of For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Hue Gets Too Heavy. 

It’s the Golden Age of Hollywood and a young Sidney Poitier (Ivanno Jeremiah) is on the brink of becoming a star, but at what cost? 

Taking place in the smoke filled opulent office of studio executive and lawyer, Mr Parks (Daniel Lapaine) Frankie Bradshaw’s design transports us to the backlot of 1950s Hollywood with a big wooden desk, leather chairs and heavy whiskey tumblers. 

Bobby (Ian Bonar), a screenwriter, has created a leading film role for his friend, Poitier. It’s the noxious era of McCarthyism in America, (which led to the blacklisting of individuals in the movie industry who were considered left-wing and so accused of Communist activity) and Parks gives Poitier an ultimatum. If he signs a contract declaring allegiance to America and betrays his friend, Paul Robeson, (an African American singer, actor and civil rights activist who is blacklisted by the US government), he’ll be cast in the part, if he doesn’t, Poitier could be blacklisted himself. 

At a Q&A after the play Calais Cameron said, after learning about this true event, he wrote Retrograde to show what it meant to be Black in a different time and place. 

Poitier is faced with an impossible choice. It  isn’t just about compromising to get ahead and being able to push for progression from a platform or sacrificing his  career and future whilst maintaining his integrity; there’s a possibility of incarceration.  Moreover, the writing explores why he is in the position of having to choose. 

The fast-paced smart dialogue elicits brilliant performances and we hang on every word. The mocking remarks from the two white men about Poitier’s skin colour encapsulate their views and character from the off, precipitating sharp intakes of breath from the audience. We laugh at Bobby’s  lack of awareness that it’s unconscionable to state to Sidney, he is “the blackest white person” he knows. 

The actors never miss a beat.  On stage for most of the 90 minutes, Lapaine portrays the morally devoid Parks with an air of importance and wily powers of persuasion. Bonar, the middle man, veers between argumentative and a willingness to tow the line. He is nervy around the strong willed Poitier and Parks. 

Ivanno Jeremiah embodies the refined Poitier with exactness and depth. From high octane arguments to quieter moments, Jeremiah showcases his agility. In anger he is dignified shouting he is “sick of living his life in a way that makes white people comfortable”.  When he sits at the desk, pen in hand, contemplating, he wipes away a tear and we see his pain. He nails the star’s recognisable voice. Credit is also due to the voice and dialect coach, Hazel Holder, for his precision. Poitier changed the way he spoke to navigate Hollywood and to illustrate this, Jeremiah slips into Sidney’s natural Bahamian accent in the raw moments of rage and upset. I hadn’t heard the phrase Code Switching before, but I understand what it is now. 

This is a must see spine-tingling play. Ryan Calais Cameron is an outstanding talent who is changing the status quo of theatre. 

Retrograde is playing at the Kiln Theatre until 27 May 2023. For tickets RETROGRADE | Kiln Theatre

Review written by Victoria Willetts

Photo credit: Marc Brenner

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