‘1% is a state of mind,’ Jaz says breezily as she re-enacts her South London Bestie, Mon, leading her through a field towards a queer rave in Croydon on precarious battery percentage. ‘Remember when I made 1% last like 3 hours? / That was a Nokia still.’ As the audience and I burst into laughter once again, it is evident that Jasmine Lee-Jones’ latest offering curious, is a one-woman play that’s sharply written and commands its audience.
curious is the Evening Standard Award-winner’s latest showing at Soho Theatre and in 90 minutes Lee-Jones manages to perform several intricate subplots that range from rollercoaster queer friendships to abusive queer relationships and the dangers of religious fundamentalism. The scope is widely ambitious and yet Lee-Jones manages to capture so many variations of Black queer expression accurately, from the humorous drama of lesbian rave linkups to her personal hunt to dismantle the colonial foundations of British drama history in order to find some meaningful semblance of Black queer presence.
curious centres Jaz, a Black queer second-year drama school student who’s feeling the colonial weight of her current drama module which focuses on the Restoration period (nicknamed ‘Resto’ by her posh course mates). It’s in complete odds with her introverted extroverted character – she’s a quietly loud, sexually curious not-by-choice virgin who revels in being named after her art form namesake Jazz (short for Jasmine) and names her faithful vibrator Aladdin.
The confines of dated drama school syllabi are a clever framework that allows the play to explore the way the drama industry continues to marginalise and stifle Black queer expression through its reverence to colonial period writing. In this latest module, a singular minor role ‘Servant’ has been split into two for the only two Black students in the class so that Jaz ends up as ‘Servant 2’ with a single line throughout the whole play. Jaz finds escape through hunting the thrilling historical profile of a Black queer 17th-century actress she discovers in a class textbook Celia Edlyne. She chases Celie’s story through the Brixton Cultural Archives and into real life, as Jasmine Lee-Jones acts out flashback scenes in which Celie takes control of her own narrative and voices us through her journey from Nigerian born girl to a runaway slave, and struggling actress turned starlet in her aristocratic lover Duchess Whitmore’s productions.
Contrasting past with present another of the most memorable characters of the play is Mon, Jaz’s South London hailing lip-gloss lesbian chargie with an unmatched pull rate and a shocking vulnerability that uproots the dominant narrative of the play. Celie and Mon are woven into fragments around Jaz’s hectic life juggling her sexual attraction to the mysterious receptionist guy at the BCA, Resto practice and her frustration at the power dynamics at play in the industry she’s chosen. At its core, curious is a play that questions belonging, presence and accountability and it is ambitious in its scope to both challenge and answer multiple questions at once. It takes on the drama scene’s white-centric universalism of classical texts head-on and uses a refreshing blend of patois and rhyming prose to do it in a beautifully familiar Black-Brit dialogue. Interwoven throughout the lines are roadmen and salon scenes, and relevant discourse about Black Pride, all well-known and acted with mannerisms that punch through with authenticity and humour.
curious is not without its weak points, the multiple characters juggled simultaneously are an admirable feat, but at times the pacing stretches thin under their weight despite well-acted characterisations; some of the characters like Jaz’s evasive BCA link feel outlined rather than fully filled in. The ending also veers towards a poetic mysticism that feels intangible rather than poignant. However, lighting and staging helps keep attention focused and the use of wonderfully written open and closed rhyme throughout the script anchors the audience throughout the 90 minutes.
I personally loved watching Jasmine Lee-Jones perform as a one-woman actor and seeing her take control as both writer and performer was empowering. The form of her play in itself is an answer to her probing questions of Black queer visibility in the arts. In one particularly poignant scene, Jaz probes at the power dynamics involved within remembering; asking who will archive us, meaningfully and holistically. The multi-layered role of Jaz in curious is therefore taxing in its complexity but feels necessary in order to answer these hard-hitting lines about the existence and legacy of Black queer women in our various creative expressions. By commanding the stage and taking up every role within her script Lee-Jones answers her own question in front of her audience and reminds us that the answer is front-stage, centre and present – it’s us.