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and breathe…

Yomi Ṣode

Almeida Theatre 16 June – 10 July 2021

Review by Delon Jessop


‘Aneephyitis is the release of the aneephya toxin into the blood stream’, we learn from a projection on the blank stage wall at the start of and breathe… It’s a condition, according to Dr Senyo Eriife, that is specific to black people, as a result of generational trauma and sounds like knuckles quietly cracking. It’s triggered, asserts the doctor (who appears to be as fictional as the disease), from the age of nine and continues into adulthood. 

Notwithstanding its lack of provenance, the haunting quotation looms like old graffiti over the play, an examination of grief beautifully told through the eyes of a young man, Junior, as his family tries to come to terms with their matriarch’s fatal illness.

The story, first written by Yomi Ṣode as a series of prose poems and now adapted by him, begins with Junior (David Jonsson) peering out at the audience, scanning the room, as if assessing whether or not he’ll welcome us into his world. He summons his cousin, Ade, and begins to investigate the twists and turns that lead us to the eventual demise of his much beloved ‘big momma’.  

The square stage is bare except for a small desk at the back corner where the composer and musician, Femi Temowo, performs seamlessly over the hour, complementing Ṣode’s poetry, often switching between the acoustic guitar, drum machine and midi keyboard. 

In the few slick and personal interactions, Temowo never voices an opinion on what’s being said; the music speaks instead. The score doesn’t feel overbearing or contrived; rather it amplifies Junior’s poignant and truthful thoughts. 

The minimal staging provides Jonsson, in a monologue portraying numerous characters including uncles, pastors and lovers, the space to build the world which he and his family inhabit. In ably embracing each character, Johnson reveals not just a chameleon-like talent but an ability to convey both the most admirable and unflattering truths about ourselves. It’s an uncanny performance.

The adapted poems give a unique insight into the traditions upheld within the Nigerian family, in life and death. Ṣode’s focus is particularly on the experience of young black men living in a country that’s often unwilling to tolerate some aspects of their very being. Junior conveys this in the intentional silences woven throughout the piece. Each silence, slightly longer than the last, prompts the audience to consider what they would say in Junior’s shoes, as the disgruntled youth struggles to find resolution. Ṣode intends that the sequence of poems will enable the audience to ‘understand the code switching’, a survival strategy that he and other black men adopt ‘on a more personal and protective level’ in Britain’s hostile environment. It’s a level, he concedes ‘that in some cases can be unhealthy, as well as oddly comforting’.

Particularly notable is the physicality that Jonsson brings to the role.  The crisp and restrained movements of a young black man navigating the loss of his grandma loosen as he becomes more vulnerable in his retelling. At points it feels like Junior is a step away from breaking out into a big dance number, but ultimately his self-awareness anchors his steps. 

Miranda Cromwell’s charming production cautiously interrogates the many faces of grief, whilst gently reminding us that our days are not promised. 

photo by Marc Brenner