Lennie James last appeared at the Royal Court in a leading role in Fallout, Roy Williams's drama about black-on-black violence. He resurfaces now as the author of The Sons of Charlie Paora, a wonderfully engaging piece with an interesting provenance. James travelled to New Zealand to work with a group of young men in south Auckland. They had seen Storm Damage, his BBC film about a children's home that drew on his experience of being fostered in Tooting. The New Zealanders identified with it so strongly that they invited James to develop a play with them about the difficulties for youths from immigrant families of graduating into manhood. Though the resulting piece has a few minor blobs of undigested research, it is remarkable how James has managed to absorb the intricacies of the culture of Kiwi "brown boys" whose forebears were Polynesian. What you are given is a drama that is felt in the bones, not some slab of anthropology or cultural tourism.
Directed by Samantha Scott, the play focuses on a rocky memorial party for Charlie Paora, an inspirational teacher and rugby coach who died a fortnight ago. The occasion reunites five players from his most successful school team. The mood at first has the elation (and the pathos) of macho mates reliving their youth, but tensions inevitably start to register, especially after the arrival of Jackson (Jason Webb), who is about to become an All Black. Only one-eighth Maori (though his "soul was brown"), Paora was like a father to these boys. The trouble is that he wasn't much of a father to his own children by a white wife. Sonny, in particular, harbours bitter resentment at having been sidelined. The surrogate sons weren't invited to the funeral. The blood children have been invited to this party. The atmosphere is combustible.
From this powerfully evoked situation, the play launches its keen insights into the difficulty of achieving male identity and self-respect in this society. Take the case of Semo (Foma'i Taito). A rugby player with more natural ability than Jackson, he failed to stick it out and is taunted for bottling out. He's in a double bind, however. His Samoan father is of a generation that needs to find a sense of worth through their sons. But Semo's early success merely exacerbated the patriarch's disappointment in himself and the boy had to come home to protect his mother from the resulting domestic violence.
To do justice to some of the central strands of the play would involve giving away too much plot. Suffice it to say that, by the end, Charlie Paora has been gently demoted from his position as the fount of all wisdom and a generous white lie has brought salutary appeasement to his blood son. We also see an extraordinary sequence where ex-jailbird Ezra (the marvellous Max Palamo) kneels, ritually seeking forgiveness, and Sonny (Wesley Dowdwell) performs a frenziedly vindictive kick-dance around him. Assuredly, this is a private wake that is well worth crashing.
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