In a week when the UK government doubled down on its harmful and divisive rhetoric with regard to refugees and immigrants, Chickenshed’s new spring show Rush feels depressingly timely. At its core the story of three women from different generations of the same family, the show also tells a much wider tale that both celebrates black culture and laments its erosion across the centuries.
In 19th century West Africa, Abeni (Grace Wariola) watches in horror as British colonisers descend on her community, destroying everything she’s ever known in the name of their God. In 1960s London, Missy (Amber Ogunsaya-William) arrives from Jamaica as part of the Windrush Generation, but despite all the promises that brought her to Britain, she’s soon forced to accept that the welcome she’s received only extends so far. And in 2018, student Aya (Cara McInanny) moves in with her grandmother Missy (Natsai Gurupira), but the future of their housing estate is put at risk by property developers with a taste for gentrification… and an even greater threat lies in wait for Missy.
The first thing to say is that Rush is not an easy watch – as audience members we might be aware of the Windrush scandal, and the ruthless expansion of the British Empire, but there’s a world of difference between reading a watered-down version in the press or the history books, and seeing the same events played out in terms of three very real lives. Abeni, Missy and Aya all see their culture and community ripped away in order to make life better for wealthier, whiter people, and that’s a hard pill to swallow for those of us who are uncomfortably aware that we’ve benefited in some way – either directly or indirectly – from that loss.
There is hope, however, represented by the wonderful Chickenshed spirit. The spring show, which brings together a cast of nearly 200, is always a heartwarming manifestation of the inclusivity that lies at the heart of the theatre’s core values. But in this case it’s even more powerful to see performers from a host of different backgrounds collaborating on stage to tell this vital story; coming from such a diverse and open-hearted community, the distressing scenes and dialogue within the show are even more jarring.
It’s clear also the time and effort that has gone in to understanding and appreciating the heritage at the show’s heart, and the result is a joyous celebration of black culture, performed by a multi-cultural cast who take that responsibility seriously. Music and dance are an essential part of the production, with a score that includes music from Jimmy Cliff, Aswad, Gregory Porter, H.E.R. and Black Pumas, performed live by the almost 100-strong Rush vocal group. As always, you can’t fail to be impressed by the talent within the cast, and the commitment of everyone on stage. The show is essentially a series of individual pieces with a number of different directors, which allows for many voices to be heard in a variety of ways – though the core narrative always returns to the three central characters, so the show never feels disjointed.
After some technical difficulties delayed Rush‘s opening, it’s great to see the show now up and running – not only for the sake of the cast and creative team who’ve worked so hard, but also for its audiences, who will be both entertained and sobered by its content over the coming two weeks. Chickenshed, with its collaborative spirit, represents a vision of how the world should be, and that’s never been more apparent or necessary than in this production.
Rush continues at Chickenshed until 25th March.