Review: Blackboard (Keep Ya’ Head Up)

Heads up! A bright, new play is coming your way.

A sold-out opening night ends in a standing ovation and a joyous post-show atmosphere. Audience members linger long after the actors take their bows to celebrate cast and crew– if that isn’t an indication of this play’s sociability, its deep connection with the student community, then I don’t know what is.

Image credits: Shea Williams

Blackboard balances a brilliantly-tuned sense of humour with the impressive weight of its message. The play centres on Adina (Christabel Okongwu), a Black-British Caribbean girl starting her first year at a prestigious university, where she encounters a cast of characters who embody a range of micro- and macro-aggressions. At the Fawcett Institute, we meet Penelope (Elise Batchelor), a friend whose hyper-performative feminism translates to a kind of fetishisation of activism, of playing the role of the victim. The Britannia Bros (Martha Gazzard, Maxim Knowles, Alfie Cason) form a hilarious trio of Union-Jack-wearing, Rule-Britannia-singing nationalists; their racism is written and performed as caricature, their offensive behaviour so ridiculous that it draws bursts of laughter from the audience.

Image credits: Shea Williams

“Why wouldn’t I stay me?” is the foreboding question the play’s first scene leaves to fester, after Adina receives her acceptance letter. Her decision to attend Fawcett is the first of Adina’s choices that bring to the stage, as she quips, three “Men-In-Black looking” figures. The Black Council (Hafsat Isaac-Momoh, Alex Clovis, Aker Okoye), dressed to impress in suits and shades, crop up throughout the play to hold Adina to a standard of “Blackness,” monitoring what they perpetuate as her offences against her race. This is where the eponymous blackboard comes in. Each time Adina fails to speak up for herself, or to exhibit pride in her race, or to hold people to account, she gets a mark in white chalk on the blackboard. It is a visual manifestation of the constant feeling of being assessed, of having to uphold stipulations and clauses held together by the word “must”– like Blackness is a responsibility. When the Black Council presents the shouldering of this responsibility as signing the “Black Contract,” indicating some degree of choice, Adina responds, dryly: “You mean, when I was born?”

Image credits: Shea Williams

Torn between holding onto her “Black Card” and pursuing the opportunities Fawcett has to offer, Adina tries to navigate this overtly white environment without feeling like a “race traitor.” The writing skilfully and soulfully animates this difficult narrative. “Spoken word and music are the lifeblood of the play,” as writers/directors Tia-Renee Mullings and Katiann Barros-Rocha state in their Note from the Writers. And it’s true– the rhythms, rhymes, and repetitions running through Adina’s direct audience-addresses or her internal debates with the personified Voice of Expectation (Katiann Barros-Rocha) do form the most powerful moments of the play.

The brilliance of this play is due in part to its huge presence offstage. Its social media publicity campaign, run by Faith Falayi, was hugely successful in showcasing a gleeful production process. A playlist, a what’s-in-my-bag collage tailored to each character, short clips of mid-rehearsal dance breaks– it all reflects an infectious energy of creative joy in the collaborative efforts of the cast and crew. You can feel it onstage. Every member of the team is proud to be there, having fun with the lighter moments before zoning in to deliver the play’s important messages. It’s this sense of the personal, the deep connection with a wider community, that lured audience members to the sold-out Corpus Playroom.

This is a show with an incredible feeling of energy, passion, and community. You don’t want to miss it.


Blackboard (Keep Ya’ Head Up) is showing 21st February – 24th February at 9.30pm in the Corpus Playroom. Book your tickets here.

Feature image credits: Alex Clovis

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