Theatre Review - Retrograde

Ryan Calais Cameron’s remarkable, award-winning For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Hue Gets Too Heavy, proved a huge hit. It began its journey in Camden’s New Diorama, transferred to the Royal Court and is just finishing a run in the West End.

Cameron has the Midas touch. Once again, he demonstrates his talent as a playwright with Retrograde, completely different in style and tone to For Black Boys… but no less appealing.

Exploring racism and moral integrity in 1950s Hollywood, this enthralling three-hander is based on a real event in the life of black actor Sidney Poitier when a studio executive tried to get him to sign a loyalty oath and denounce his friends.

Poitier (Ivanno Jeremiah) is at the start of his legendary career. Bobby (Ian Bonar), a screenwriter, has offered him the main part in his latest film. Poitier is keen to play a central character “without caricature or stereotype”.

But bullish, NBC lawyer Mr Parks (Daniel Lapaine) is in charge of contracts and expects Poitier to do his bidding.

It’s the McCarthy era. Parks questions Poitier’s affiliation with Harry Belafonte, before demanding he denounce actor-singer Paul Robeson, an activist in the civil rights movement, for his communist beliefs.

Poitier greatly admires Robeson. When he refuses to comply, the lawyer resorts to blackmail and threatens to blacklist him. Parks doesn’t hide his racism as he tries to force the actor to fall into line.

Parks and Bobby could have been more nuanced as characters but Cameron’s snappy dialogue drives the drama and he combines the personal and political to terrific effect.

It’s impeccably acted (particularly Jeremiah) and director Amit Sharma ensures the tension never lets up. I wouldn’t be surprised if Retrograde also gets a West End transfer.


Orignally published by Camden New Journal