On Friday 23 October I was privileged enough to see a staged reading of …cake at Theatre Peckham by the lauded babirye bukilwa (Women’s Prize for Playwriting 2020 finalist and Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting 2019 shortlist). I use the word privileged not in a hyperbolic sense, rather reverentially I felt like I was watching the precursor/preview of something great, legendary even. It is the same feeling I experienced when I watched previews of Nine Nights (Natasha Gordon) and Misty (Arinze Kene) before their West End transfers.
…cake is the first piece of live theatre that I have seen since early March of this year, if lockdown and quarantine have forced us to look at our interior lives and the society we inhabit, then bukilwa’s play is this intensified, an hour-long exploration of the queer black femme self. …cake is the second play in the psychological thriller trilogy focused on the character of Eshe. It acts as a preface or origin story to bukilwa’s first play …blackbird hour, although it could easily stand alone as a solo piece. On the surface, one could describe it as self-contained, as the performance centers around 16-year-old Eshe (played by Chioma Nwalioba) returning home to visit her inebriated mother (Nadine ‘Chia Phoenix’ Woodley) on Sisi’s birthday after a period of absence. But to say that would be to take a reductionist view of its offerings. The play is more than a kitchen sink drama although it has plenty of it – we learn that Eshe has been staying at Sisi’s ex-girlfriend’s house Annette with her son Michael and has been missing school, prompting visits from social services. Deeper than its drama …cake is a look at roots and causes, an exploration of the self and how we understand that self in relation to others, most importantly our family. A recurring motif in the play is the imagery of flowers, of growth and decay delivered through this idea of soil and foundations.
As the play unfolds, we learn that Eshe has left home due to an inability to cope with her mother’s ongoing struggle with substance abuse and poor mental health. The play does not hide away from the ugliness and the traumatic nature of Sisi’s ill health and its negative effects on Eshe. Yet to call it a play that is just about black trauma is to be myopic. Bukilwa’s play interrogates the ways that trauma is manifested, resisted, and acknowledged, and how it taints our understanding of love and self-worth.
This is a heavy play. But it is also one that is full of levity and of tenderness and beauty. One of the reasons why this tension is successful lies in the play’s production, its deliberate musical choices, staging and worldbuilding, its ability to enrapture the audience. From its preshow activity of Nadine Woodley rolling up on a smoky stage in a stereotypical old school Caribbean living room equipped with a multi-coloured covered sofa and Gregory Isaacs classic Night Nurse blaring out into the auditorium. The audience is drawn into this cosy yet chaotic interior life of Sisi, although a slightly stripped back staged reading, the somewhat unfinished look added to the overall effect.
After the play, there was a post-show talk and Q&A where I learnt that the production had come together and been rehearsed in three days! You could not have guessed this from the vitality of the performances given. Nadine Woodley’s portrayal of the short tempered Sisi, a simultaneously overbearing, engulfing, needy yet neglectful mother was delivered with unmatched energy and humour. The audience alongside Eshe felt the fierceness of her ire, love, and sense of betrayal. I thought Nwalioba’s characterisation of a conflicted; fearful and resentful Eshe was expertly done her physicality on stage was captivating. I particularly enjoyed the way they both used their scripts as extended props to convey poignant emotions. The cast’s performances are a testament to malakaï sargeant’s directorship of gentle questioning and trust of bukilwa’s script and the actresses’ prowess.
It would be wrong of me not to mention babirye bukilwa’s mastery of language. There are plays where the actors are making the best out of a poor script – this is not one of them. The writing is nuanced, urgent and lyrical, tender yet incisive. As a writer I found myself caught in the friction between jealousy and awe. She has so many great lines describing co-dependency, depression, addiction, teasing out the self-destructive yet deeply loving relationship between this queer mother-daughter duo. Phrases like: “I lose myself in you/ And you lose yourself in nothingness/ I don’t know how to perform the love you want” capture the enmeshment at the heart of this play.
In short, the question is not whether …cake is a good or bad play, it forces you to feel – beyond binaries and dualistic thinking. It is a mirror that asks you to look inwardly and then at the world, questioning the love you have both given and received.