This final play in a trilogy for the National Theater confirms that Kwame Kwei-Armah has vital, topical ideas and a terrific ear for the subtleties of black British speech — and that he’s yet to find the form to give full voice to his theatrical imagination. Like the earlier “Elmina’s Kitchen” and “Fix Up,” “Statement of Regret” is a conventional, naturalistic drama that brings torn-from-the-headlines issues about Britain’s black communities to mainstream auds. The information is provocative, but feels like it’s bursting the seams of the well-made-play structure.
Like that of the playwright who inspired him, August Wilson, Kwei-Armah’s central theme is how the past, if not addressed and processed, will continue to haunt blacks’ lives and actions. The trigger for this play was the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, commemorated last year. Kwei-Armah focuses on an internal rift between Britain’s African and Afro-Caribbean communities that (as he presents it) was exacerbated by the debate over appropriate reparations for slavery. He attempts — without quite succeeding — to embody this macro-issue in the story of one middle-aged black man’s identity struggle.
The Institute of Black Policy Research is a fictional think tank whose co-director, Kwaku (Don Warrington), has been on a downward personal spiral since his father’s death two years ago.
Thanks in part to IBPR’s lobbying, the first British Minister of Race has just been appointed, but the organization is at a crossroads about how to move forward. Its younger, Oxbridge-educated staffers feel they should move away from the reparations issue to address internal problems within the black communities, a position Kwaku initially resists. This debate is established via some engaging but overly stagy business meetings, weighed down by the introduction of the extended cast of characters, bringing issues ranging from homosexuality to ’70s-era black spirituality to Kwaku’s current and past marital infidelities.
There’s simply not enough time and space for all these characters, relationships and concerns to breathe, making the play’s central themes slow to come into focus. Another problem is that Kwaku is an unsympathetic central character; because he’s so washed up from the start, it’s difficult to imagine how he could have compelled the interest of political leaders and sexual conquests alike. Warrington struggles valiantly with the role, but lacks the charisma that might flesh out this enigmatic figure.
The real interest of the play and Jeremy Herrin’s production lies in the ideas conveyed through smaller roles, and the supporting male cast is across-the-board excellent. Colin McFarlane is hugely sympathetic as Kwaku’s lieutenant Michael, and Chu Omambala is silkily convincing as gay, whip-smart policy expert Idrissa.
A second-act standoff between Kwaku’s legitimate and illegitimate sons is the production’s highlight, thanks to Javone Prince and Clifford Samuel’s superb playing. But there’s little Angel Coulby and Ellen Thomas can do with Kwei-Armah’s stereotyped female characters.
One of the play’s real pleasures is its characters’ various linguistic registers, from Idrissa’s cut-glass Queen’s English to Lola’s Nigerian accent to Kwaku’s slightly patois-flavored diction (which the character turns up to communicate street cred). This underlines Kwei-Armah’s point about the diversity of black British experiences, and will doubtless give the National’s primarily white auds valuable food for thought.
Kwei-Armah’s relatively rapid success appears to have come at the expense of his full development as a playwright: Many of this play’s problems (slightly clunky exposition, overladen central character, idealized women, overdependence on sins-of-the-father theme, stagy 11th-hour standoff) are familiar from the first plays in the trilogy. Moving away from naturalism — and from the national spotlight — might be his best next move.