“Fix Up” is Kwame Kwei-Armah’s second National Theater play in as many seasons, and this latest effort leaves little doubt that the actor-turned-writer is not lacking in ideas. What he needs now is a structural finesse that might showcase to best advantage a thematically rich melodrama that currently resembles an early draft of a still-evolving script. As it exists in its Cottesloe premiere, “Fix Up” defies the skillful attempts of helmer Angus Jackson to make a whole of some exceedingly clumsy parts. All manner of fixing is called for if “Fix Up” is to fulfill its admirably lofty aims.
I have no idea whether Kwei-Armah is familiar with the work of August Wilson, but it’s almost impossible not to see this play as a modest British riff on Wilson’s ongoing theme: the need for the black community to connect up to its past. After all, argues Brother Kiyi (Jeffery Kissoon), proprietor of a north London bookshop that for 15 years has specialized in black heritage literature, to know where you’ve come from is to know where you are.
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Brother Kiyi’s problem is that his days as storekeeper and resident social pundit are numbered and so, the play implies, is the willingness of the populace of London’s Tottenham district to look beyond the very rasta-style dreadlocks Kiyi sports.
Developers, you see, are preparing to build luxury flats over the shop, with the premises beneath due to be turned into an emporium for black hair products. History, or so we’re told, risks being replaced by hair gel, notwithstanding Kiyi’s best attempts to preach the gospel of James Baldwin or Marcus Garvey, both of whom he has on tape.
If the play’s broader concerns have to do with the erasure of the past, Brother Kiyi is kept exceedingly busy in the present. On hand for occasional expressions of militancy is Kwesi (Steve Toussaint), the neighboring tenant who takes a shine to the mixed-race Alice (Nina Sosanya), a newly lingering and comely presence in the shop.
Why is Alice there? To let slip much more would be to give away one of several revelations on which the plot-heavy second act depends. Suffice it to say that Alice’s strict use of language (she prefers “person of dual heritage” to the phrase “mixed race”) doesn’t prevent her from stirring the erotic pot, with the illiterate Carl (Mo Sesay), a former crack addict now in Kiyi’s employ, among those who fall under her sway.
The retinue is completed — and most delightfully so — by Brother Kiyi’s backgammon partner and potential financial savior, Norma (Claire Benedict), who offers a droll voice of deadpan calm amid the accelerating frictions around her.
As various scores wait their turn to be settled, tempers inevitably snap, not least in Kwesi’s blunt assertion that the black community wants “nails and tattoos,” not books. Surface appearances, not the stuff of ideology, now define their lives
The point is a fascinating one ripe with dramatic potential, even if Bunny Christie’s terrific set — shelves piled high with books of varying degrees of dustiness — creates so inviting an atmosphere that one can’t imagine the shop not meriting a preservation order at once.
And the writer offers a keen anatomy of a rarely addressed (in the theater, anyway) topic: the middle ground occupied by people of mixed race, who, in “Fix Up,” are seen to speak a “half-tongue” that risks alienating them from both the cultures that gave them birth.
Kwei-Armah won enormous acclaim for his previous play, “Elmina’s Kitchen,” a portrait of gun culture in the London borough of Hackney’s so-called “murder mile” that is about to be seen anew in a U.K. touring production. (Jackson also directed “Elmina’s.”) I missed that earlier play so must confess some surprise that Kwei-Armah’s writing turns out on this evidence to be quite so dogged, its pungency as strained as an eleventh-hour grandiosity leading the always expansive Kissoon down an irredeemably stagy path.
Then again, it’s hard to know how anyone could navigate those passages in “Fix Up” that buckle under the contours of tragedy that, given the circumstances, are not a little contrived.
Kwei-Armah’s great theme is recognition, on both a personal and political level, so one hopes he’ll recognize the need to consider this script anew: “Fix Up” deserves a fresh start.