Ryan Calais Cameron’s play Retrograde opens at the Kiln Theatre. If writers have a defining moment, then this play that paints a portrait of a time in Sidney Poitier’s earlier life, may just be one of those many moments for Ryan.
Retrograde is set in 1954/5, in what is known as the Golden Age of Hollywood but was not that golden for Black actors. They were in the thick of racial segregation in America, and on screen the roles were caricatured and stereotyped. 20 years earlier Blackface had just been banned, in 1930, the craze of blackface died out because of its connotations with bigotry and racism. Calais talking about the play says “it has parallels to what is happening in the industry now. What Sidney did in the 50’s speaks to a whole generation of artist now”.
Retrograde is based on a true event in the life of the legendary actor who is known for the revolutionary line “call me “Mr Tibbs” and turning down the lead role of Zeke Ward in the film the The Phenix City Story (1955) because it went against his values, in time where such an act was extraordinary to do so.
The three hander takes place in the NBC New York office in 1954. Sidney then is an aspiring actor, NBC offer a lucrative contract to play the lead in their network film drama, A Man Is Ten Feet Tall. For Poitier this could be a deal breaker taking his career to new heights. But it is not quite as straight forward for Sidney as his meeting with Bobby (Ian Bonar) the aspiring writer and well meaning “white friend” and bully NBC lawyer Larry Parks (Daniel Lapaine) in the smoked filled office comes with conditions attached fuelled by NBC paranoia of the Civil Rights Movement, bolstered by the FBI and McCarthyite politicians being convinced the movement is part of a communist plot and at the helm of the plot is Paul Robson. Poitier must sign a contract that denounces Robson publicly. Before his arrival in the office Bobby sets the tone of the time by reminding us that Sidney is not “Belafonte black” but “Black-Black” this is said in earnest as Bobby wants his friend to get the part.
The office is designed by Frankie Bradshaw sees decanters of whiskey adorn 1950’s office chic, wide leg pants are the thing of the day. When Poitier arrives in the office Parks pulls out his best (very funny) “black talking” to which the very cool and sophisticated Sidney (Ivanno Jeremiah) barely flinches, slightly bemused perhaps.
Parks gets down to business offering Sidney immense, wealth, fame but first he must ensure Sydney has “American Values”. The money and riches come with signing “one short oath”. Parks is not short of resulting to blackmail to get Sydney to sign. “Being blacklisted ain’t no joke when you’re already black”, he says or warns. The response from Sidney to getting blacklisted on McCarthy Red Channels is one of many great lines of dialogue. He responds: “All this time I thought I wasn’t getting work because I am black and now, I discover it’s because I am red!”
The 90-minute play becomes an engaging power struggle, with shifting power dynamics with the only person holding their reserve is Sidney, Parks is just short of giving himself a heart attack, throwing insults at the two other men, and throwing in a bit of “humour” for good measure. It makes for a very strong piece of drama; all three actors are brilliant. There is a marriage between Ryan’s writing and the casting. Jeremiah’s Sidney has some show stealing moments, capturing Sidney’s rhythm, the voice, the smooth persona, the grace.
It is quite timely for Ryan to bring Retrograde to the stage now as it marks just over a year of Poitier’s passing and meets the recent death of Harry Belafonte. Poitier’s legacy goes with saying, in the early ’50s, he was the top and virtually sole African American film star—the first black actor to become a hero to both black and white audiences.
This is Director Amit Sharma’s Retrograde whose direction is the icing on the cake, he says. “I think for people who love Sidney it is for people to fall in love with him again”. He could not have said it better. A master piece for the ages, a theatre masterclass. BOOK TICKETS
Sidney Poitier KBE February 20, 1927 – January 6, 2022) was a #Bahamian and American actor, film director, and diplomat. In 1964, he was the first Black actor and first Bahamian to win the Academy Award for Best Actor. He received two competitive Golden Globe Awards, a BAFTA Award, and a Grammy Award as well as nominations for two Emmy Awards and a Tony Award. In 1999, he ranked among one of the “American Film Institute’s 100 Stars”. Poitier was one of the last major stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood cinema.