Princess & The Hustler review or 'Family comes first.'

Princess & The Hustler, Chinonyerem Odimba
Bristol Old Vic, 14th February 2019
Written for The Guardian



An angry mob surges forward, banners held aloft. “No more colour bar!” scream the banners and red-faced citizens. They’re protesting a local bus company’s decision to ban blacks and Asians from their crews. This is the Bristol bus boycott of 1963: famous in the south-west, pivotal to the black British civil rights movement, little known elsewhere.
Community volunteers, alongside professional actors, make up the angry mob, speaking Bristol-based playwright Chinonyerem Odimba’s words. This locally gestated play is written with heart and purpose. Sometimes it feels overcrowded, but every character in it deserves to be heard.
It is the second production from Revolution Mix, Eclipse Theatre’s new writing programme. The first show, Black Men Walking, comprised prose, poetry and rap. Princess & the Hustler, again directed by Dawn Walton, is a more traditional political family drama. Odimba’s writing occasionally buckles underneath all that purpose, which is a shame: the vibrant family at the heart of this play is more than capable of speaking for itself.
Ten-year-old Phyllis is our princess, a young black girl who dreams of a beautiful future. Peeling away from the family living room, she retreats to a fantasy world hidden behind a sheer curtain: a world of glitter balls, bright colours and beauty pageants, artfully designed by Simon Kenny. In this secret sparkly space anything is possible – whatever the colour of your skin. But Princess’s fantasies implode with the return of her estranged father and his mixed-race daughter Lorna. Gradually, the racial tensions brewing outside begin to seep into the family home.
Kudzai Sitima and Emily Burnett are excellent as Princess and Lorna, best friends one minute and bawling enemies the next. But this play belongs to Princess’s parents. Seun Shote as Wendell, the “hustler” father, is a bundle of volatile emotions, chuckling serenely then bristling with frustration. Donna Berlin plays the mother, Mavis, quite brilliantly, as a woman who has learned to hide herself. As she begins to feel more safe, Mavis’s hidden self, hidden happiness, hidden swinging hips, re-emerge. “My crown is invisible,” Mavis tells her daughter. “But it still there.” 

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