In Two London Plays, Being Black Means Looking From the Outside In
LONDON — It was my second time here, and I kept trying to remember if I had felt as conspicuous during my first visit. I could count the number of other Black women I spotted during my five days here: the hotel receptionist with the French braid, whom I spoke with when I stopped in to ask to use the bathroom, the long-haired woman at my own hotel’s front desk, the woman talking rapidly into her cellphone outside a Starbucks, the two women (clearly tourists) with matching backpacks near the British Museum, and the young woman with the short, relaxed hair, who was clutching a shopping bag as she walked briskly down the street. That list isn’t comprehensive. But it’s not far off.
So when the eyes of a white person linger on me, as they did numerous times during this trip, my imagination tricks me into thinking every glance is a rebuke — whether because of my obvious Americanness; or because of my race, my tattoos or my pink hair. I don’t know how to sit with my discomfort in these moments, and I inevitably ask myself: How much of an outsider am I?
Such thoughts often cross my mind when I go to the theater — whether in New York, London or elsewhere — and sit among the predominantly white audience, watching the mostly white actors onstage. In choosing which London shows to squeeze into my short work trip, I gravitated to two brand-new family dramas, “Mad House” and “The Southbury Child,” with big-name stars and stories about white families.
As these weren’t the domains of Tina Turner or Sister Deloris Van Cartier or Noma Dumezweni’s Nora Helmer, I didn’t expect to see any Black women on either stage. But I was wrong; in both “Mad House” and “The Southbury Child,” a Black woman — the lone Black person in each show — is not only a part of the play, but she also serves as an outsider who witnesses and comments on the chaos, enduring microaggressions and outright aspersions before making her escape.
In “Mad House,” written by Theresa Rebeck (“Bernhardt/Hamlet”) and directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, David Harbour (“Stranger Things”) plays a man named Michael who is watching over his dying father, Daniel (played by Bill Pullman) in rural Pennsylvania. But the father’s illness isn’t enough to stop the man’s unending stream of vitriol and abuse.
It’s just the two of them now, since Michael’s beloved mother died, because of — according to his father — Michael’s yearlong stay at a mental hospital, which broke her heart. Rounding out the living members of this broken nuclear family are Michael’s brother, Nedward, a Manhattan stockbroker who pops up after a prolonged absence to take charge of Daniel’s assets, and his sister, Pam, a vicious manipulator who shows up halfway through the play to exacerbate the situation.
Into all this mess enters Lillian, a Caribbean hospice nurse hired to help make Daniel comfortable during his final days. She maintains her professionalism despite Daniel’s crass come-ons, objectifying of her body, offensive comments about trans people (she’s so muscular she might be a man, he declares) and racist attitude (he repeatedly insists that he paid for her, like a slave). She’s spoken down to and bossed around by Ned and especially by Pam, who insists Lillian is unqualified. After Lillian shares a letter with Michael that she’s discovered among Daniel’s papers, the extent of his family’s lies come to light.
Because I’ve seen so many plays in which the entrance of a Black character signals the beginning of a string of awful clichés and tropes, I am now leery when I see a lone Black person appear among a cast of white characters. When Akiya Henry, the actress playing Lillian, initially appeared in the first act, walking into Daniel and Michael’s kitchen, I felt this same foreboding.
Originally from St. Vincent and the Grenadines, as the family members announce several times, Lillian is an outsider, and she’s a helper — quite literally, of course, since she’s a nurse. Armed with sharp retorts and a sassy, well-timed sucking of her teeth, Lillian punctuates the absurdity of the circumstances and brings the outside world into the confines of this unstable family home so the audience doesn’t get too claustrophobic. She is also the main inciting force that moves the story forward and cracks open the family dynamic. She’s not so transparent an archetype that her tale is left to the imagination, though: She gets a tragic, grief-filled back story, but only so the play can relate Michael’s emotional baggage through Lillian. She’s the mirror held up to Michael’s inner life.
In one of the other West End plays I saw, Stephen Beresford’s “The Southbury Child,” directed by Nicholas Hytner, the token Black woman is even more aware of her status as an interloper, and the script struggles to give the character dimension.
Here, Alex Jennings (“The Crown”) plays a philandering vicar and alcoholic who becomes the town pariah after refusing to allow balloons at a young girl’s funeral. The Black actress Racheal Ofori plays his adult daughter Naomi, who materializes like the prodigal adopted daughter. Appearing in fitted tops and mini skirts after nightlong partying, Naomi is, well, the black sheep in more ways than the most obvious racial one. Unlike her religious father, she is what she calls a “militant atheist”; she lacks the same underlying bitterness of her mother and outshines her hardworking but overlooked elder sister.
Naomi plays no role in the odd central drama about balloons but saunters onto the stage every once in a while, in her club clothes or pajamas, taking in the drama and mocking and jesting at her family and her status as the sole person of color. Like Lillian in “Mad House,” Naomi serves as the wise fool.
Hers is one of several side stories in this intriguing yet overpacked play: Feeling alienated as a Black woman in a white family, she seeks out her birth mother in the hope that doing so will help her find her true self. In the meantime, her character is the snarky observer who then complains about being tokenized by her community. In one instance, she sneers as she describes the self-congratulatory white moms who proudly set up play dates between their daughters and the town’s Black girl.
The similarities in the way the characters’ arcs end in each play are intriguing: For both Naomi and Lillian, the departures are abrupt. It’s as if neither stage has a place for these Black women beyond their roles as outside observers and truth-tellers. Once they’ve played their parts, they are seemingly given an out; finally spared from having to see the mess through to the end. But the exits of these Black women also seem like a validation that they don’t actually belong there. That they are exceptional.
And, in a sense, they are — both Henry and Ofori make their characters compelling, so much so that sometimes they steal the spotlight. Not for long, though — never for long. Despite the strong Black female leads you can catch on some stages, too many productions still embrace a very narrow role for their Black women, who can nurture, drop snide remarks and reveal truths the other characters fail to see — so long as they know their place as visitors in the narrative.