Feast, a Young Vic and Royal Court co-production written by a team of international writers and directed by Rufus Norris, is an extraordinary ensemble piece of theatre exploring the varied experiences of people of the Yoruba diaspora across three centuries. Centering around three sisters who first appear in Nigeria about to be captured by slave traders, these women (both the actors and their characters’ names) reappear in Brazil, Cuba, the UK, and the US as they encounter changing values about the place and philosophies of their race, always followed by the spectre of the trickster god Esu.
In an elaborate and brilliantly red suit, Esu (played by a variety of actors) opens the show by teaching the audience some of the tenants of the Yoruba faith which will manifest themselves later on, while at the same time performing a series of impossible quick changes into progressively more elaborate outfits. He eventually returns to the stage with a live chicken named St. Anthony, who will appear throughout as Esu tries to get eggs to bake a cake for a birthday party–one which does not occur for another three hundred years.
The varied stories of the three women, Yemaya (Noma Dumezweni), Oya (Michelle Asante), and Oshun (Naana Agyei-Ampadu) portray compassionate tales of a slave woman who does not know where to go when abolition comes to Brazil, African American women during the civil rights movement at a sit-in, a Cuban prostitute, and a British track star, among others. Each actor puts on several different accents throughout the performance, each one as believable as the next. Interspersed throughout are ensemble moments of music and dance, beautifully performed and with complete loyalty to the variety of different genres used, from traditional African dance to hip hop. The sense of ensemble is invoked throughout, during which at various points actors emerge to become distinct characters. This set-up is for the most part successful, though the actor playing every white male character (Daniel Cerqueira) seems a bit out of place in some of the dance sequences, and the characters grow difficult to tell apart in the several modern day scenes that occur at the end of the show.
The rather simple set is enhanced with strategically dim lighting, allowing the easy indeterminacy of time and place, as well as a variety of video projections that supplement the personal stories portrayed with history. We see registers of slaves sold from Nigeria, images of famous civil rights activists, and other text that gives the context that might otherwise be lacking to the scenes and imbues them with additional importance and relevance.
By the end of the performance, we witness several conversations between educated black characters struggling to relate to the experiences of their ancestors while at the same time functioning in their own society. As time progresses in the play, these deliberations grow more and more cynical, as we begin to realize that there is no answer for how to be black or even Yoruba in a multicultural world. This performance is engaging, fascinating work, both emotionally moving and thought-provoking, that teaches without being intrusive and explores cultures in miniature without trivialising them. Feast is a visual and aural masterpiece, definitely worth seeing and worth going back for more.
(Programming Note: Glasgow was absolutely phenomenal. Photos and stories coming soon once I’m slightly less exhausted and have time to go through them all.)