[Timeless and timely]
Empty of performers, the main stage at Basement is adorned with eye-catching intricacies to represent a living area and kitchen – there’s a sumptuous green velvet couch, colourful map of Haiti and a potted plant… with browning leaves. After house lights dim, our central characters Jo (Layla Pitt) and Flo (Estelle Chout) enter with varying states of energy. Prepping the house for a dinner party, Flo is nervous and erratic in contrast to Jo’s laid-back optimism as she chooses a playlist and defends her outfit choice. Immediately, we understand the relationship dynamics between the two characters, with wry chuckles of knowing from the largely queer and POC audience.
As Flo and Jo recalibrate, relieving Flo’s tension with a comedic massage, the conversation skips along – vocalising Flo’s concern over her antagonistic sister, and alluding to a secret they need to spill. Estelle Chout’s script is so subtle and full of natural points of humour that it takes only a moment before the audience is fully submerged in Flo and Jo’s world.
Then Marie (Sandra Zvenyika), the woman we’ve heard so much about, enters – trailed by her husband, Shane (Andrew Johnson), and his apprentice, Felix from Fielding (Jack Briden). As Felix quickly devours the oysters offered up for everyone, we realise this clueless party interloper is going to make things a lot harder for Flo and Jo.
What follows is a completely engaging – and wholly believable – discussion in near real-time about Flo and Jo’s life-choices. Without dipping into spoilers, there are numerous points of conflict for the sisters. Statements are fierce and their body-language is confrontational – and it is glorious, and funny, and authentic. Moments like these highlight the creative impact of Black Creatives Aotearoa – when three multifaceted, complex, black women take up space without being moderated by a Pākehā lens.
The wide stage space means there are multiple moments where individual characters become the focal point, but the cast also work in tandem to engage – with seemingly natural, yet choreographed direction: Flo and Jo gleefully dance after they serve up the winning point of an argument; hyper-critical Marie trims dead leaves from the plant – the audience in fits of laughter with the tiniest snip of her nail scissors.
There’s no doubt the direction of Dione Joseph has managed to make an already great script even better. The performers are a true ensemble, working hard to convince us of the complexities of their relationships, and the hard work pays off.
So enraptured, I’m not aware of how much time passed and, after exiting the theatre, I didn’t check the time for what felt like the best part of an hour. The atmosphere was celebratory and conversations continued as the cast and creative crew came to mingle.
Estelle Chout’s script and performance are both exceptionally nuanced. The shortest phrase moves action along, the smallest facial expression elicits emotion. This was the first queer, black love-story on stage in Aotearoa – a landmark celebration by Black Creatives Aotearoa.
This play needs to be seen, devoured and uplifted – as does BCA’s next one, and the next.
Po’ Boys and Oysters plays Basement Theatre 27th September to 8th October, 2022