Afro-jazz legend, father, lover, playboy, husband, rulebreaker, enigmatic force of nature… Boi Boi is dead. But not forgotten.
Left alone to rebuild her life, Miriam’s heartache is interrupted when Boi Boi’s reckless ex-wife Stella and traditionalistic brother show up to stake their claim on his name, on his property and to revel in the glory of his fame. Determined to keep her family together, Miriam’s life is thrown into turmoil when Stella discovers the secret she shared only with Boi Boi. Will the beguiling Stella be triumphant in the face of Boi Boi’s death? Live music entwines with crackling dialogue in this sharp new production for the Courtyard stage.
Zodwa Nyoni, a poet and playwright, has released her first full length play. It covers the course of a family at its most introspective and potentially destructive. Biting dialogue, a playful use of music and superb visuals – this production contains and highlights all the elements that the West Yorkshire Playhouse excels at.
The titular Boi Boi – as you may or may not expect given the context – was an almost permanent presence on the stage. Jack Benjamin portrays the character as ever watchful; at times subtle, jubilant, guilty or sad…but most impressively, Boi Boi is constantly a pale shadow or reflection of the man that he used to be. Veteran actor Andrew French is particualy impressive as Ezra. In the opening moments, it is difficult to imagine every warming to this dismissive, traditional and sexist character; yet by the halfway mark, Ezra had demonstrated (a degree of )warmth and a fear of letting his family down that was very humanising. While the character never becomes likeable, neither was he the villain of the piece. Joseph Adelakun plays the petulant Petu with verve, while Debbie Korley makes the teenage Una relatable and easily the most pleasant character of the ensemble.
The stand outs of the production though are the two women whose lives were dominated by Boi Boi’s life. Lynette Clarke alternatively intrigues and repulses as the manipulative and evocative Stella. Her presence is universally undesired. Her intentions are transparent and ego driven. Her behaviour is brash…but as Boi Bois widow – estranged or not – her rights cannot be ignored. Her character is a total contrast to the put upon, maternal and warm hearted Miriam, who is masterfully brought to life by Angela Wynter. Miriam, who has held the household together for 12 years, has no valid claim to her home. She has provided for and loved Boi Boi and Una and loathes the carefree and careless Stella. Their interactions are powerful and provide the heart of this production.
One of the strengths is that it deliberately eschews moralistic overtones. As is the case in life, behaving well or selflessly doesn’t bring guarantees or rewards; any more then behaving outlandishly or inconsiderately brings with it trials or tribulations. Had there be even a hint of a political aspect to this production, I would have been disappointed at the suggestion that the only hope for young Zimbabweans was that they move to another country (in this case England), but there wasn’t. This was a deeply personal and family orientated story – no external influences were mentioned and the decisions made by the characters were based only on personal and family lines. Only one action within the play didn’t quite ring true to me. Throughout, only one relationship seems to be healthy and strong – that of Miriam and Una, which made Una’s actions during the conclusion to be unusually callous.
Music also played a distinctive and mood setting role. Live music, singing and chanting – all are interspersed with the plot and dialogue in ways that feel organic and alternatively unobtrusive or attention grabbing. An afro jazz song was used to particular effect during a scene where Miriam recalled meeting and flirting with Boi Boi. Perhaps the only misfire in my view, was Una’s song. While the lyrics were no doubt very poignant, the song itself was very ambitiously structured which made it difficult to follow them.
The ending is rather marvellously ambiguous and how it concludes very much dependson your viewpoint. For me, I think that societal and community consideration will take priority. The only people who can understand the attempt and the need to move on from Boi Boi and the disastrous impact he had are those others who were similarly impacted by him. There is an intangible link between them. Despite what the characters may have said earlier in the production, family does not always require a blood connection.
The backdrop was very beautiful and provided a setting that was lovely to look at but I felt underutilised. While certain set pieces – such as the dog with the bone at the very beginning were very evocative; they didn’t seem to provide any function beyond being visually satisfying, which would have made sense had this been a purely minimalist play. However, boxes were moved forward and back, without ever seeming to be essential to the production. At one point, a character brings out a basin and returns it after half a minute – it felt like a somewhat unnecessary back and forth. On the other hand, the use of empty space on the stage was interesting. Characters operated as silhouettes; moved in strange and often isolated patters in the background. The space was obviously emblematic of the gap left in each characters life after the death of Boi Boi – an effective visual.
From the ages of 9 to 16, I lived in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, so I was extremely excited to learn that Boi Boi is Dead would be performed at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. However, this play was one that transcends its setting. Sure, the music and certain phrases and mindsets felt very orientated in Southern Africa – but the tale itself is that of a dysfunctional family. This family – torn apart and recreating itself after a death and deception – could have been set anywhere, because people in pain exist everywhere. Like the best storytellers, Zodwa Nyoni has woven a truth in a particular context, one that she happens to be familiar with, but it is one that rings true domestically, throughout the world.
Boi Boi is Dead runs until the 7th of March
Writer – Zodwa Nyoni
Director – Lucian Msamati
Designer – Francisco Rodriguez-Weil
Dramaturg – Alex Chisholm (Interview with LeedsBookClub HERE and HERE)
Boi Boi is Dead at the West Yorkshire Playhouse
Buy tickets HERE