THE Dorset-based State of Play company describes its work as “creative journeys through drama and the arts” and its modus operandi is to settle on a theme, research it and create a production through workshops and improvisation.
It is a tried and tested method which can and has produced powerful drama and compelling storytelling, and the company’s many fans are undaunted by the intrinsic problems.
GI Joe in Dorset, the latest touring play, is a perfect example of the strengths – and weaknesses – of the process, and in many ways it is frustrating that just a few tweaks suggested by someone outside the show could make such a huge difference.
It began as an offshoot of the We Were Here project, part of Black History Month, and drew on the research of Dorchester-based Louisa Adjoa Parker.
The play that is now touring tells the story of a 20 year old African American GI stationed in Dorchester, his romance with an English girl and his conflict with a racist GI from the southern states.
The clever structure begins with Peter, a 60-something garage mechanic and his young apprentice Wayne. Peter is being pestered by an oral history researcher, and he neither wants to tell his story nor thinks it will interest anyone. But the unacademic Wayne is REALLY interested in history.
And so the story unfolds.
It is beautifully acted, particularly by Anyebe Anteyi in the title role, Jasmine Atkins-Smart as Lily, whose immediate attraction was palpable, and the versatile Caine Stanton as Wayne and Bud, with David Doust as James and Moses Hardwick as Peter.
Directed and scripted by Tony Horitz and Sharon Muiruri (who also play various roles in the story), it veers from crude caricature to poignant tenderness and frightening violence. The head-to-head confrontation of Joe and his sergeant, Leroy, diminishes the effect of the beating dealt out by Bud.
The pronunciation of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot – frequently recorded and readily available – was jarring.
The sergeant came on with a legless camp-bed which he picked up, folded, unfolded, brushed, layed down, picked up, folded, brushed …
Both he and Joe held shovels as though they had never seen such an implement before. Don’t give actors props unless there is some way in which they progress or enhance the scene. It is these little things, as well as the sometimes unnecessarily forced script progression, that run the risk of spoiling the show.
Perhaps I am being overly critical.
The ending, when the audience is invited to reflect on the balance of responsibility and to chose three characters to question further, is a fascinating and challenging idea, and one which was embraced by the Bridport audience. The actors remained perfectly in character for the experience.
This is a very strong story, and one which deserves research and exposure to an audience in the place where it happened. One audience member, visibly moved by the evening, said that this was just his own experience.
In places it has been over simplified and over emphasised, presumably for the sake of clarity. Let the story speak for itself, and let these fine actors do it justice.
GI Joe continues in October, visiting Melbury Osmond, Broadmayne, Durweston, Bournemouth University, Dorchester and the Shelley Theatre in Boscombe.