This is a very enjoyable performance, offering a rich and textured story that blends traditional African spiritualism with modern-day sociocultural concerns.
Written by Temi Wilkey, The High Table follows the story of lesbian lovers Tara (Cherrelle Skeete) and Leah (Ibinabo Jack) who are soon to be wed in spite of cultural prejudices and of Tara’s parents’ disapproval. The forbidden love of two homosexuals is not a unique premise for a play, this is true, but the direct association this play makes between African spiritual ideals, cultural values and homosexuality is quite original, indeed. The play voices the effects of colonialist ideology on contemporary African views on homosexuality, something rarely addressed in this fashion, and uses the spirits of the ancestors, primarily spirit Yetunde (Jumoké Fashola) and the imagery she uses, to evoke Africa’s history before said colonisation. The text is very thought-provoking in this way and comprises very heavy and challenging topics, such as hate incidents and governmental injustices, asylum-seeking and suicide, but does so with a certain ease and intelligence. The spirits of the ancestors are used in this play as our moral and intellectual guides through the story, their moral thinkings adapting as the story unfolds, and I think this is a clever, if rather direct, way of presenting the themes of the text.
The actors in this play are very engaging, sufficiently humorous and compelling where they ought to be. They each remain sure of their characters’ intentions and objectives, performing with convincing and coherent emotion. These are strong performers. There does lack, however, a sense of believability, especially given that, on the night I saw the performance, the vast majority of the cast stumbled over their lines repeatedly. There is definitely a sense of rigidity in their performances at times, and I would have liked to see more energy from them in areas, especially where transformativity is concerned; it took me some time, as it did other, vocal members of the audience, to realise, for example, that the actors were, in fact, multi-roling.
Another related issue that I have pertains to the actors’ use of movement in this performance –– a directorial issue, I should add. There is a particular movement Fashola makes repeatedly throughout the play when she enters into an almost trance-like state, accompanied by the tense sound of the percussionist’s (Mohamed Gueye) drumming. Fashola kicks her feet on the ground, staying in one spot, turning to each side of the stage whilst she speaks. I find Fashola’s physicality in these moments to be most energyless to such an extent that her movements seem awkward and unseemly. These moments are rather laughable and ineffective, and so I would like to see more vitality and severity here. Conversely, there is another type of movement which all actors perform at some point during the play, and this is a slow, stylised series of movements accompanied by stark coloured washes (lighting designed by José Tevar) and dramatic music. These sequences are far too incongruous stylistically with the rest of the performance and stick out sorely as overdramatic and cheap, especially with this drastic change in technical components as well.
On the topic of music, I must commend percussionist Gueye for his drumming. Gueye’s music adds severity, tone and texture to the performance, increasing drama, tension, suspense and sensation. I find his integration into the world of the play to be rather strange, however. Gueye sits Upstage Right with a persistent smile on his face, reacting subtly to the dialogues ensuing amongst the spirits below him. He is even acknowledged by the spirits at some point. I would prefer he be silhouetted when not playing his music, rather than integrated into the action; otherwise, this complicates our reading of space and function. As for pre-recorded music, I find the usage of this to be fallible when played alongside Gueye’s live drumming; its usage within the material realm, however, when Tara and Leah listen and dance to their songs on their phones, for example, is most apt. As for sound, one thing that sticks out for me is the use of echoing when the spirits speak. This is most otherworldly and effective — a most commendable decision.
As alluded to above, in this play, there are two worlds: the spiritual realm and the material realm. The two are differentiated very effectively, principally through the use of space, costume and sound. The action that transpires in the material world is presented downstage, in a small clearing amongst the brown dust, and the consistency of this makes for better readability but also for better spatial organisation. Slight alterations of costume –– such as the material Jack ties around her waist when playing Adebisi, used as a head towel or placed to the side of the stage when she plays Leah –– also help to indicate such a change in setting. Such features also indicate an interrelationship between the material realm and the spiritual, which I favour. Characters from the material world also have a certain interaction with the set (designed by Natasha Jenkins), sweeping the dust upon it off of the clearing with a traditional African sweeping broom (those usually made of palm-tree branches / twigs), just as one might sweep one’s compound in Africa. This adds relatable and comical cultural references to the dramatic text, though I am not sure what such dust would be doing in the living rooms of African families living in London, as Tara’s are. The characters also clear paths, as Tara does when requesting that her mother leave, and actions like this are less legible and rather too histrionic. The set otherwise captures a very legible afterlife inspired by the vast planes of Africa.
Overall, this is a very gripping performance. However, I feel that the text relies too heavily on comedy in places where it could present quite serious content, and I find certain content, particularly that involving the spirits, to be rather repetitive and bland, overall. Homosexuality is once again synonymous with struggle and suffering, and I find that the text follows a rather bleak and seemingly unending trend in contemporary literature, however gratifying and heartwarming the very ending may be. I would also recommend strengthening scenes between Tara and Leah which oftentimes feel unnaturally gushy and overplayed. This being said, the manner in which the content of this play is communicated is most refreshing and intriguing; I just believe that the text carries the actors at times and vice versa at others. Finding a balance between the poignancy of certain scenes and articulacy in acting in certain areas would vastly benefit this play.