Obama the Mamba, Lowry Theatre, Salford


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The Independent Culture

Mamba means crocodile in Swahili. It strikes first, with speed and without warning. It is not a nickname many would apply to Barack Obama, though Osma bin Laden might have disagreed about that.

But it is the tag that the people of Huruma slum in Kenya gave to George Hussein Obama, the halfbrother of the US President. Barack and George have different mothers but the same absentee father.

By interweaving their two stories playwright Kevin Fegan has created a clever vehicle through which to explore the contrasts and commonalities of the Brothers Obama and their very different lives in America and Africa.

The stories of the two men throw revealing light each on the other. George was, in his own words, a badass gangsta, mugging and robbing taxis. But after nine months in prison, he met a nice girl who reformed him into a community worker, running youth groups, recycling rubbish and coaching Huruma United to the national finals.

Fegan’s script time-shifts skilfully through George’s story providing the material for a virtuoso performance by Clifford Samuel who commands the unadorned dust-covered stage for more than 90 minutes without a break, supported only by the atmospheric percussive riffs of double bassist Michael Searl.

Samuel ranges back and forth, with subtle shifts in pace and mood, between childhood, lost days of drugs and drink, courtroom drama, the warmth of the slum community and the two elusive meetings between George and his famous American half-brother.

Where Fegan has been cleverest is in the unforced resonances he highlights between the “hope out of adversity” rhetoric of the two men, one addressing a nation, the other a youth football team. Had he written it just before Barack Obama’s first presidential race this might have been a story of parallel triumphs despite the accidents of birth.

But coming now, when President Obama’s audacity has soured into disappointment on so many issues, a more bitterly ironic dimension is added. The name Barack means blessing. “If he is your blessing,” George asks his family, “am I your curse?”

Life has turned out a deal more complicated than that, something Fegan exploits by having George draw interesting parallels between Africa and America, bribery and taxation, community and democracy, poverty and privilege. The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, George’s African proverb tells us. But the second best time to plant one is now.