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"Small Island" Looks at Racism and Prejudice

By Karen Nowosad,

originally published: 06/23/2020

"Small Island" Looks at Racism and Prejudice

Through the end of July, the United Kingdom’s National Theatre is running online viewing of some of their most popular plays. Because of my own scheduling conflicts, I missed several of their earlier productions. Finally, this week, the planets were all in alignment and I was ready to go. I went to the National Theatre’s You Tube Channel and was awed by Small Island.

Just for this week, Small Island is available for viewing through 7:00 p.m. (London time, or 2:00 p.m. EST) on Thursday, June 25. The play is based on the 2004 novel by Andrea Levy of the same name. With the social problems of racial injustice currently in focus, this is a very appropriate offering from National Theatre.

Small Island played on the stage of the National Theatre in London to sold out crowds between April – August of 2019. After watching this production which was filmed during the play’s run, it is no surprise that it drew big crowds. The play is dynamic in showing racism and prejudice during the pre and post World War II Era in Jamaica and in the U.K. There are several scenes where American soldiers and the divides between the races is evident in their words and actions as well. However, there are notes of hope that the play provides. This is accomplished through a powerfully written story which the acting team plays out forcefully.

The Story – Three Interrelated Segments

Under the direction of Ruth Norris, the story of Small Island is set in three segments. These segments begin with scenes in Jamaica introducing a few of the major characters. Hortense (Leah Harvey) and her mother move from a rural farming area to a home in the Kingston area. An initial look at racism comes in from her mother’s viewpoint. She feels that since Hortense has lighter skin, this move will afford her opportunities for a better placement in life. The house is owned by Hortense’s aunt and uncle who are very religious. They take her and her mother in. Hortense is given a room in the main house; her mother is made to be a servant.

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Hortense is delighted to meet the aunt and uncle’s child Michael who is close to her age. They are raised together and develop a good relationship. Hortense falls in love with Michael and is heartbroken when he enlists to serve in the Royal Service based out of England. She also is stunned to see Michael romantically involved with the white teacher at the school where she works.

The second segment focuses on Queenie (Aisling Loftus), a white woman, who is looking to improve her life. She is married to Bernard (Andrew Rothney) who serves in the Royal Service during World War II. He does not return home after the end of the War. The best information Queenie finds on him is that he is alive but in some trouble keeping him held in the Service but with no communication to her. To pay the bills, Queenie rents rooms in her house and is one of the very few places in London where a black men can get a place to live. Michael comes to live there and they have a relationship resulting in her getting pregnant. Michael never knows about it.

Back in Jamaica, Hortense meets and marries Gilbert (Gershwyn Eastache Jr.). He desires a better future for them so he goes on ahead to London and tells Hortense he will send for her.

The third segment brings all the pieces together when Gilbert rents a room in Queenie’s home. He then sends for Hortense who makes the voyage to London to join him. Suddenly, Bernard returns and is there as Queenie gives birth to the child she and Michael conceived. No one ever knows the identity of the father other than Queenie. The scenes involving the baby, Queenie, and Bernard brings out extreme racism sentiments and it leads to a difficult ending involving Hortense and Gilbert. The interactions of the characters come full circle as Hortense and Gilbert take Queenie’s baby to live with them as they set out to new lives. Gilbert is determined to be a lawyer and Hortense wants to continue to be a teacher. And still, no one except for Queenie, knows that the baby Hortense will now mother is actually her cousin Michael’s child.

Strong Staging Adds to the Strength of this Production

The stage in the Small Island is large. This allows a tremendous amount of movement by the actors which helps to create intensity needed to make their points. A visual backboard displays video and it allows scenes to come to life. One of the most stunning moments in the play occurs when a hurricane hits Jamaica. The movement of the wind and palm trees is shown as people run about trying to prepare for the storm. Hortense’s arrival at the docks from the ocean going ship is also a very effective moment where these screens bring the points into focus.

See this from the Comfort of Your Home

Although it is not the same as seeing a show live, we have a rare opportunity to be able to watch well produced plays right from a location of our choice. Small Island is one you want to be sure to see. It provides a unique look at racism dividing people. But it also shows people striving for a better life despite the obstacles. In a sense, Hortense and Gilbert become a tribute to that concept. It would be most interesting to see a play written following up on what happened to them.

Small Island streams on the National Theatre’s YouTube Channel. You can also see a little teaser on this trailer:

Highly Recommended!

Let's Go to the Theater helps people learn more about about live theater and develop appreciation for this art form. Karen M. Nowosad is the founder of the site. The enjoyment Karen gets from going to the theater is something she wants to share with others.

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