“Wynter’s script is light footed and fast paced, packed with witty one liners, but unafraid of sombre, more human moments”
Black Superhero is a fresh and exciting exploration of black queer love, and representation, which effortlessly manages to straddle the personal and political.
David (played by writer Danny Lee Wynter) is a struggling actor, trying to stay true to his principals about black queer representation, but also trying to pay the rent. He is in love with his best friend, King (Dyllón Burnside) and King has just opened his marriage. However, what unfolds is not a love story, but a power struggle of hero-worship, self-loathing and the inevitable spiral into dark and familiar places.
Wynter’s script is light footed and fast paced, packed with witty one liners, but unafraid of sombre, more human moments. While questions of representation, particularly about whether queer actors should play queer parts, and queer baiting, do dominate the discussion, they are handled lightly. There are no tired and long-winded explanations, this is a play which expects a level of knowledge from its audience. As such it can dabble in the conversation, without getting weighed down by it. Also, it’s very funny. The biting satire of the white characters had the audience groaning, wincing and cackling. Yet the emotional connections felt real, and the depictions of joy were a pleasure. At one point David, speaking about the film Moonlight, comments on a lack of representation of queer joy. It is striking how much laughter (especially in the first half) does dominate the characters’ interactions.
Daniel Evans’ direction allows the play to bridge fantasy and reality but remain grounded in the present. The presence of an actual superhero on stage is bold, and at times a little clunky, but when it works, it works very well. There is a hilarious moment where superheroes in garish costumes are suspended in mid-air, parroting the ridiculous exposition all too familiar in blockbuster sci-fi. There is also an incredible moment where David is enveloped by a giant cape, occupying most of the stage.
Rochenda Sandall as David’s sister Syd was a real standout. She navigated the complex emotional role with energy and passion. She was both moving and hilarious.
Joanna Scotcher’s set is dynamic and futuristic. A huge metallic screen takes up much of the stage, made up of intersecting triangles whose borders occasionally glow (thanks to Ryan Day’s thoughtful lighting design). This screen bursts apart to reveal a bedroom, a party and at one point an intergalactic meeting spot. Sometimes though it means the action is cramped onto a small part of the stage, making it uncertain whether the set dominated some of the directorial decisions. There is one particular set piece, involving a waterfall made of sand, which is striking and beautiful and incredibly memorable.
While it’s true that the play loses steam a bit in the second half, it is original and somehow manages to have a new angle on questions of representation. In terms of representation itself, it is interesting how revolutionary it feels to see three gay black men kissing on stage. And also, crucially, being allowed to laugh, as well as cry.
“Guettel’s score is drenched in a lush, autumnal style, with orchestrations that are truly gorgeous”
The Light in the Piazza lands in its London premiere with a level of prestige – it scooped up no less than six Tony Awards during its Broadway run in 2005. While the musical consequently carries with it an inherent air of quality, it also finds itself emblematic of the genre as a whole, as it glosses over and romanticises subject matter which deserves a little more nuance.
Based on the 1960 novel by Elizabeth Spencer (which was also released as a film two years later), The Light in the Piazza follows the journey of Margaret Johnson (Renée Fleming), whose developmentally disabled daughter Clara (Dove Cameron) falls in love while the pair are on holiday in Florence with Fabrizio Naccarelli (Rob Houchen). Margaret grapples with letting go of her child and allowing her to live independently with Fabrizio, although in doing so she never fully discloses the nature of Clara’s disability to the Naccarelli family; it’s a decision that comes with huge ethical implications and ramifications, albeit ones that the show seems quite happy to ignore.
Adam Guettel’s score is drenched in a lush, autumnal style, with orchestrations that are truly gorgeous, and Kimberly Grigsby’s conducting makes the music feel like it fully lives and breathes with the characters and the story. Despite that the style starts to feel somewhat overfamiliar in the latter half the show, there are still a variety of hugely enjoyable numbers, such as Say It Somehow and Let’s Walk. Guettel’s lyrics and Craig Lucas’ libretto are full of quirks, wit, and humanity, but neither feel like they genuinely facilitate any true depth to the themes or characters. Despite this, there are some excellent performances on display in Piazza, particularly Fleming as Margaret, who keeps guilt and uncertainty bubbling underneath a frothy exterior, and Alex Jennings as Signor Naccarelli, whose charm and self-assuredness beautifully counterbalances the more melodramatic facets of the other characters. Every single member of the cast delivers immaculate vocals, and Robert Jones’ scenic design and Mark Henderson’s lighting harmoniously provide some stunning aesthetics. Piazza is undoubtedly a visual and aural treat.
However, the substance simply isn’t there to support it. Understanding and misunderstanding are prominent themes in Piazza – the Johnsons don’t speak great Italian and the Naccarellis don’t speak great English so their meanings aren’t always perfectly conveyed to each other, and some scenes and songs are entirely in Italian, so that the audience have to rely on the visual storytelling alone (which, thanks to Daniel Evans’ direction, is stellar). It suggests that the love between Clara and Fabrizio transcends barriers such as language or disability, but the fact that Fabrizio falls so swiftly for a woman with the mental and emotional capacities of a twelve-year-old draws allusions to the seedy over-sexualisation of young girls in society, and the fact that Fabrizio isn’t made aware of long-term effects that the disability will have on the relationship makes the romance feel unearned and untrue. And unfortunately, Piazza hinges itself on the romance.