Powerful, polished and utterly absorbing, Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu’s Sweet Like Chocolate Boy explores the changing face of Black British identity and protest over the last three decades, through the very different experiences of two young Londoners.
In the 90s, Bounty (Michael Levi Fatogun) is a quiet, well-spoken boy who just doesn’t quite fit, no matter how hard he tries. He’s aware of racism, even in his best friend James, but he doesn’t like to confront it – a reluctance that will come back to haunt both him and the people he loves. In the present day, Mars (Andrew Umerah) is street-smart and brimming with confidence as he sets out to meet his dream girl, Fantasia (Veronica Beatrice Lewis) for a protest march that simmers throughout the day with the potential for violence. Mars and Bounty seem at first glance to have little in common – until an explosive finale reveals that their lives and actions are far more intricately linked than we thought.
The show’s lyrical and fast-moving script is set to a soundtrack of garage and jungle, which evolves with the story through the decades, and is accompanied by energetic choreography and movement sequences from Sean Graham. Under writer Fynn-Aiduenu’s direction (and the watchful eye of Alice Fofana as the omnipresent god-like figure of the DJ), the action is as non-stop as the dialogue, with the actors often given only seconds to slip on a new outfit and in doing so, embody a very different character. All rise to the challenge with incredible dexterity; such is the success of the play’s characterisation that it often feels like we’re watching a much bigger cast. Veronica Beatrice Lewis in particular shines as she reappears in the guise of brash Sandra, mysterious Fantasia and sweet-natured Michelle, as well as the overly aggressive mental health nurse trying to get Mars’ attention.
Andrew Umerah and Michael Levi Fatogun are equally impressive as the two central characters. Umerah owns the stage as the young, cocky Mars – but like the chocolate bar after which he’s named, beneath the tough facade there’s a softer centre. We learn that he met Fantasia while recently hospitalised after a bout of depression, and it’s clear that she holds significant power over him; his actions on the day of the march are motivated just as much by his need to be loved – by her or by anyone – as by any particular ideology. Meanwhile, Fatogun’s endearingly awkward Bounty struggles to understand his place within an increasingly politically active Black community; he just wants to get along with everyone, and his naive attempts to fit in and act the role he thinks he should play are simultaneously a source of humour and desperately sad to watch.
Sweet Like Chocolate Boy isn’t always an easy play, not least to those of us for whom it’s an uncomfortable (but necessary) reminder of our own privilege. But with race as an important, current and ever-present backdrop, the play also doesn’t shy away from tackling other themes like mental illness, the need for human connection, and the struggle faced by so many young people in Britain today to find a place in the world where they can truly feel like themselves. This is a challenging and gripping piece of theatre from an exciting emerging voice; though it may be named for a 90s tune, it has just as much to say – and maybe even more – in 2018.
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