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Retrograde at Kiln Theatre review: Ryan Calais Cameron’s portrait of Sidney Poitier is electrifying

 (Marc Brenner)
(Marc Brenner)

A resolute, dignified young Sidney Poitier squares off against the paranoid forces of white 1950s Hollywood and the American political establishment in this electrifying drama from Ryan Calais Cameron. Unfolding in real time over 90 minutes it has the pace of a thriller and is written in a heightened, brutal form of classic, snappy movie dialogue. Amid all the zingers and putdowns, Ivanno Jeremiah delivers a performance of great strength and delicacy as Poitier.

I’ve previously known Cameron through his wonderful, loosely poetic expression of black male experience, For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Got Too Heavy, a runaway fringe hit that’s just made its mark in the West End: and Queens of Sheba, the female equivalent he co-scripted.

Retrograde, a rigorously constructed narrative drama, confirms him as a writer of great skill and talent with more than one stylistic shot in his locker. Since it lands a year after Poitier’s death and in the very week that Poitier’s friend and fellow campaigner for equality Harry Belafonte died, it’s also timelier than even the author might have hoped.

In a smoke-fugged backlot office, lowly writer Bobby (Ian Bonar) forewarns bullying NBC lawyer Parks (Daniel Lapaine) that his actor friend Sidney isn’t “Belafonte black” but “Black-Black”. Things are changing, albeit very slowly, in the film world, and the trio are meeting to sign a contract for a TV film that will significantly boost Bobby and Sidney’s careers.

Mr Parks (Daniel Lapaine), and Sidney (Ivanno Jeremiah) (Marc Brenner)
Mr Parks (Daniel Lapaine), and Sidney (Ivanno Jeremiah) (Marc Brenner)

But NBC, convinced by the FBI and McCarthyite politicians that the growing civil rights movement must be part of a commie plot, are looking for a Judas figure who will betray more prominent and outspoken black artists and activists. Even if you don’t know or can’t guess the way the real events of this case played out, the shifting power dynamics here make for nail-biting stuff, as the clock on Parks’s wall loudly ticks away the minutes.

Cameron also addresses complex moral issues. How much should you compromise in order to shift the progressive dial a little bit? Where does white allyship shade into a white savior complex? Where does gratitude edge into obsequiousness?

Compelling as it is, Retrograde isn’t perfect. Parks is overwritten as a character, shifting from hyperactive bonhomie to sinister threat and back again in a way that’s only credible if you buy fully into the heightened nature of the dialogue. Lapaine delivers the many microaggressions well though, right down to Parks’s determined mispronunciation of “Poitier” as “Portier”. Bobby is underwritten, but also contradictory: sometimes combative, sometimes servile. At times Cameron gets carried away with the snap and crackle of dialogue and strays into pastiche.

But kudos to director Amit Sharma for capturing the pace and pulse of the writing. And to Jeremiah, who is physically unlike Poitier, but captures the essence of his rangy grace, clipped diction and fiery stare. His Sidney has a late speech that wavers on a knife edge between magnificence and sententiousness. It’s magnificent.

Kiln Theatre, to May 27; buy tickets here