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"Victory goes to the player who makes the next-to-last mistake - Chessmaster Savielly Grigorievitch Tartakower (1887-1956)"

Thursday, April 20, 2023

The Secret Life of Bees "a joyful, meaningful, and passionate musical. We simply loved it." @AlmeidaTheatre

Last Friday night Stuart and I went to see the musical The Secret Life of Bees at the Almeida Theatre in London's glitzy Islington.

Back in 2015, Lynn Nottage's play Sweat at the Donmar, was a cutting examination of class, economic strife, and forgotten industrial towns in the US that spoke volumes about, and had many parallels to, modern Britain. Here Nottage has brought that deep understanding of all things social and political to a musical adaptation of Su Monk Kidd’s novel The Secret Life of Bees.

A small-minded, racist South Carolina town in 1964 sees white teenager Lily (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) and her black maid Rosaleen (Abiona Omonua) runaway from violence and oppression to seek refuge in a private community of honey-making worshipers of a black Madonna. The women working there have agency and run a successful business - yet know to keep themselves to themselves. Lily isn't so street-wise however and things soon spiral out of control when she is caught in a car with black youth Zachary by the police. The couple had just been delivering honey to the local store but the racist police beat Zachary up and then imprison him. Soon Lily's evil Dad tracks her down too and her past catches up with her.

That said, the play isn't really about Lily, it's about Rosaleen and the other black women. There is growing political awareness of these women that runs through the play. Their personal as well as socio-political challenges are very raw as they confront the deeply embedded and systemic racism in American society. This is no more evident than when Rosaleen is attacked as she tries to express her enfranchisement and Sign My Name. The right to vote has only just been extended to women like Rosaleen.

Duncan Sheik's music is funk, gospel, folksy rock with a hint of blues - and it's glorious. Susan Birkenhead's lyrics are powerful, delightful, and incredibly moving. I was brought to tears on more than one occasion. The vocal performances including Rachel John, Danielle Fiamanya, Ava Brennan are outstanding, along with excellent support from Noah Thomas and Tarinn Callender.

The source material for The Secret Life of Bees may have a perhaps straight-forward plot and at times rather limited character development but Nottage, Sheikh and Birkenhead have done much to bring this story to life. They have grounded the action within a power civil rights framework. The music brings a real soulful and impassioned perspective in this approach that builds audience engagement. Whitney White’s production for the Almeida has its moments of sentiment but it is never a passive experience, ultimately delivering a hopeful and meaningful night.

We simply loved it.

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