FRIDAY 19th JUNE 2020 ~ BLOG POST
A SMALL ISLAND
by John Yeo
We watched a performance of ‘A Small Island,’ screened by the National Theatre. This is a play based on a novel by Andrea Levy, who sadly passed away from Cancer before she was able to see it.
This play is based on the Windrush scandal. A reflection of the time when many people from Jamaica in the West Indies arrived in England as citizens. Many of these people had earned their citizenship by fighting for their colonial Mother country of England during the Second World War. Jamaica was a colony of the British Empire and this gave these people the right to take up citizenship in Britain.
The play focussed on a few unfortunate people who had arrived in England from their homes in Jamaica to live and work.
The play started in the West Indies by highlighting the shortage of employment and the frequent hurricanes and tropical storms that afflict Jamaica. England became something of a paradise, where jobs and houses were freely available and the expectations of these people’s dreams were clearly evident.
Some had dreams of taking up professional careers or joining the forces when they reached England.
The play focused partly on one couple. The man Gilbert, joined the Air Force and had plans to study to become a lawyer. The scene when he was interviewed for his career was illuminating as he was promised a high position. This never materialised as he was immediately placed in a menial position as a driver. The first example of the huge letdown most of these people would experience.
A young light skinned, half caste lady, named Hortense, wanted to go to England but single young women were discouraged from applying and she was at her wits end. The only way she could get accepted was to go through a marriage ceremony with her friend Gilbert who would then send for her as his wife. Hortense was a teacher and she planned to continue her teaching profession in England.
Meanwhile Gilbert had settled in England and after he had left the Air Force, he desperately tried to get a job. He had little success, due to the overt racism of the times. He was subjected to some terrible racial abuse during his employment and was attacked at his place of work.
He tried everywhere to secure some comfortable accommodation to rent but once again ingrained racism reared its ugly head with landlords refusing to let their properties to black people. He finally managed to rent a shabby one-roomed bedsit from a landlady named, Queenie, who desperately needed the income from a few rooms in her house and she was happy to accept black and coloured people.
Eventually Gilbert sent for Hortense, who arrived and was shocked to discover the living conditions in the bedsit.
The racism and the trials and tribulations this couple went through were harrowing to say the least. This story is riddled with some obnoxious scenes of the horrible challenges facing black people in England during this period.
Queenie, the landlady gives birth to a black child, the result of a liaison with a former tenant. Meanwhile her husband had unexpectedly returned from a forces posting in India and is revealed to be an extreme racist. He demands that Gilbert and Hortense get out of his house immediately.
Gilbert and Hortense find somewhere else to live and the play finishes with Queenie, the landlady, begging them to take her black child with them as she believed this would be the only way her child could ever expect to be accepted into British society.
I was vaguely aware of the so-called Windrush scandal, when thousands of black people arrived in England looking for a better life. This eye-opening play revealed the shocking depths of racism that was ingrained throughout society at that period in time. I’m sure there are residues of these cruel, unfortunate, unforgivable attitudes running through all strands of our society still. I think by screening this play the National Theatre has done a powerful service to the Black Lives Matter campaign.
Written by John Yeo ~ All rights reserved.