Nick Le Mesurier reviews Freeman and Green Leaves Fall in a double-bill at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry
Freeman tells some of the tales behind the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s a complex story that weaves relentlessly throughout history, taking many forms but with one underlying theme – black people’s second class status and all that has sanctioned.
Central to the play is the story of William Freeman, unjustly imprisoned for stealing a horse in 1837. He was so badly beaten while in prison that he suffered brain damage, and on his release he murdered a white family with whom he had no connection save that they represented the oppression he had experienced all his life. He was the first American to submit a plea of insanity at his trial, but it didn’t work. An autopsy revealed the terrible lesions in his brain. Death brought an explanation, but not a resolution.
Each of the seven historical characters on whom this play is based suffered some form of mental illness and ended up in trouble with the law. The latest was Sarah Reed, a young woman who’d had mental health problems for thirteen years after the death of her baby, and who killed herself in Holloway Prison in January this year. It was sad end to a deeply moving play, and it brought the audience to its feet in applause.
The second performance of the day was Green Leaves Fall, a stirring, often funny and again beautifully performed coming of age tale. It concerns a young man, Kieran Benjamin Zephaniah Salassi Tyrone Brown, orphaned in the Brixton riots of 1981 and later adopted by a wealthy white family. We saw him thrust into the unlikely world of an upper class public school where he encounters a range of prejudices; not only as a poor black scholarship boy in a rich white environment, but of the more subtle kind that turn on connections. Fortunately for Kieran he excels at just about everything, though arguably at a cost to his dignity. Prejudice and unemployment lead him back to Brixton where he finds some kind of succour in the emerging Black Panther movement. But it’s an uneasy truce, and it inevitably leads to tragedy.
Though these two plays were full of dark, meaningful themes and contemporary relevance, the troupe’s performances were so balletic, graceful, witty and deeply felt that the audience was gripped from beginning to end. They have recently formed a partnership with the Belgrade Theatre in another example of the theatre’s commitment to make theatre relevant to as many people as possible. It promises to be a great collaboration.