Bringing to life an under-explored episode in the early career of Sidney Poitier, Ryan Calais Cameron’s Retrograde is the finest new play about a pivotal, still pertinent, moment in civil rights history since Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop.
The latter – depicting Martin Luther King on the eve of his assassination – hurtled from the fringe to the West End in 2009 and enjoyed a starry spell on Broadway. I see no reason why this shouldn’t enjoy a similar heady success.
Displaying a crisp dynamic concision, in contrast with his current vignette-filled hit For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy, the 90-minute piece, capably directed by Amit Sharma and beautifully acted, propels him, at a stroke, to the front rank of our playwrights.
Retrograde itself assesses a breakthrough moment – in the TV play A Man is Ten Feet Tall – that might not have been. Although Poitier had attracted attention in the 1955 film Blackboard Jungle, as a delinquent student, the role that screenwriter Robert Alan Aurthur pitched him to NBC to star in that year – as an ebullient, cordial stevedore, who befriends a white newcomer to the docks – was in a different league; no TV drama had featured a black protagonist.
Even if we go in knowing that the TV play got made, Cameron takes us inside the adrenal real-time deliberation and confrontation that pushed the up-and-comer, then 28, to the limit. A signed loyalty oath, an affirmation of American values bedded in anti-Communist paranoia, was demanded of him.
In a set-up reminiscent of David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow, thanks to a zinging staccato interplay between the nervy, needy screenwriter (Ian Bonar’s Bobby) and the bull-headed executive lawyer (Daniel Lapaine’s Mr Parks), Ivanno Jeremiah’s Poitier enters a swish office that becomes a grisly microcosm of wider society. The perspiration flows more steadily than the liquor pushed on the initially abstinent actor as the trio get down to dirty business. Parks roves from faux affability, past hectoring and lecturing to blackmail to achieve compliance, with the added kicker of a demanded on-air disavowal of the mighty radical Paul Robeson.
Jeremiah is superb, suggesting charisma, wariness and a core resolve to stand steady, buckling as the implications are made clear: what price is a clear conscience if he can’t work at all, or utilise success to do good? We can’t help but think of cancel culture today but the piece – commendably even-handed and light of touch – rigorously honours its ’50s setting, attaining a peak of articulate defiance that recalls Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Yes, it’s honestly that good.
Until May 27. Tickets: 020 7328 1000; kilntheatre.com