This is the setting of Trouble in Butetown by Nigerian-British playwright Diana Nneka Atuona, whose first play Liberian Girl won the 2013 Alfred Fagon Award. It’s both a WWII drama and a race play that quite literally reminds us that ethnicity and nationality are not black-and-white matters.
Rosie Ekenna and Sarah Parish. Photo: Manuel Harlan
Alas, as its name suggests, there’s trouble in store for this community. Butetown at the time was also home to American GIs – known as ‘snowdrops’ because of their white helmets – many of whom carried the racial prejudices of their homeland’s segregated communities with them overseas. White soldiers who believed themselves superior didn’t like the fact that in Butetown their Black counterparts were treated as equals.
Enter Nate (Samuel Adewunmi, in a commendable stage debut), a Black American GI on the run from his so-called comrades. He’s turned up in Gwyneth’s garden and, after some fierce inspection from the motley crew holing up here, is taken in. He charms Gwyneth, dancing with her and sharing his recipe for moonshine; he wins the heart of her older daughter Connie (Rita Bernard-Shaw, balancing being a stroppy teen with a wide-eyed young woman hopeful for her life ahead); and he finds an unlikely ally in younger daughter Georgie (a cheeky Rosie Ekenna doing a decent job with such a weighty role) desperate to become a soldier like her Nigerian father, who is missing in action. The men in Gwyneth’s boarding house are more suspicious of Nate’s intentions, but their loyalty when faced with bribery then blackmail is touching.
Bethan Mary-James, Sarah Parish, Ifan Huw Dafydd, Rita Bernard-Shaw, Samuel Adewunmi, Zephryn Taitte, Ellie-Mae Siame. Photo: Manuel Harlan
While the stakes of the ‘plot proper’ are high, Atuona gives time to emphasising the dynamics between those living in the house. Much is made of Gwenyth’s stifling urge to protect her daughters, as it is the rivalry between them. We’re introduced to Qur’an-reading, beer-drinking Dullah’s (a brooding Zaqi Ismail) struggles to reconcile his chosen life with the one he left behind, and Norman’s (Zephryn Taitte, carrying much of the show’s humour) sadly prescient views on racism.
This production, helmed by director Tinuke Craig, who recently wowed us with Jitney, takes place entirely in the naturalistic living room and garden of the boarding house. Designer Peter McKintosh has strung the walls with fading flags from countries around the world and plonked a piano in the corner – used to accompany a couple of gorgeous, smoky songs sung by Bernard-Shaw. Above the living room, hallways only vaguely sketched with wooden beams, doors and ropes allude both to the house’s guest rooms and the port, where the play ends suddenly and appropriately with a well-timed blackout.
Trouble in Butetown takes a few scenes to warm up, but when it does, this WWII play that’s really more about race tells an important story about colour and how prejudice has long been a threat to interracial harmony.
Book now to see Trouble in Butetown
|What||Trouble in Butetown, Donmar Warehouse review|
|Where||Donmar Warehouse, 41 Earlham Street, Seven Dials, WC2H 9LX | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Covent Garden (underground)|
10 Feb 23 – 25 Mar 23, 7:30 PM – 10:00 PM
|Website||Click here for more information and to book|