Retrograde (Kiln Theatre)

Posted: April 27, 2023 in Uncategorized

Photo: Marc Brenner

Writer: Ryan Calais-Cameron

Director: Amit Sharma


The image of the “Golden Age” of Hollywood has already been tarnished for many reasons and Ryan Calais-Cameron’s new one-act play exposes yet another. Retrograde centres on an episode in the 1950s, during the early career of the great black actor, Sidney Poitier. Poignantly, this World Premiere coincides with the death of Harry Belafonte, who is mentioned in the play several times as Poitier’s friend.

The drama unfolds in the office of prominent lawyer Mr Parks, made by Daniel Lapaine to look like an unscrupulous bully. He takes on the role of defender of American value and he is joined by Bobby, an ambitious screenwriter with liberal leanings (“I’m the blackest white man you know”). Bobby has a screenplay about to be produced for network television by NBC and he wants a black actor to play the leading role, choosing Poitier, who is already a friend. Parks has drawn up the contracts and they are waiting to be signed.

Ivanno Jeremiah’s Sidney is amiable, dignified and determined. He does not actually speak the words “call me MISTER Poitier”, paraphrasing the actor’s most famous line, but his manner says it silently. There is a snag. Parks’ contracts include an oath to uphold American values and a denunciation as a Communist sympathiser of the legendary actor, singer and black rights activist Paul Robeson.

The McCarthy era, rooting out allegedly un-American activities overlaps with the start of the Civil Rights movement to give the play its toxic context. Should Poitier sign the oath to further his career ambitions and avoid being blacklisted by Hollywood? Or should he stay true to his friends and his strong personal beliefs by not signing? The clash of ideals makes compelling drama.

Retrograde is an obvious must-see for film buffs, but it raises concerns that go far wider than just cinema history. At one point, during one of Parks’ right wing rants, Lapaine seems to mimic the gestures and speech tones of a recent (and possibly future) American President. This draws laughter, but it could be a reminder that paranoia and hysteria can overtake reason just as easily now as 70 years ago at the time of the McCarthy witch-hunts.

Amit Sharma’s fiery production is given a handsome look by Frankie Bradshaw’s set design of Parks’ office and, in the climactic clashes, the writing and the acting are outstanding. The play takes its time to get to the point, but, when it arrives there, the heat that it generates is intense.

Performance date: 26 April 2023

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