Essentially Black follows two History undergrads at the University of Oxford: a mixed-race student called Jess and a Black student called Lydia. Both of them are part of the student body-led campaign to take down the statue of Cecil Rhodes overlooking Oriel College. Both of them, in different ways, are confronted with Oxford’s racist infrastructure. Jess has to reconcile the fact that she is the public face of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign with the fact that she is half white and has a white football-playing boyfriend, whose cancel-culture-hating friends alienate her. Meanwhile Lydia, a dark-skinned Londoner, struggles with hypervisibility and microaggressions, such as a white porter demanding identification from Lydia (and none of the white students) that she goes to the university.
Although the characters are fictional, the Rhodes Must Fall campaign did actually take place throughout 2016. Despite the national coverage over this campaign, writer Naomi Denny relegates the actual goings-on of these historical events to the background – she also chooses to relax the portrayal of the University of Oxford. Losing the verisimilitude of the two girls’ university experience means losing vital plot-points which could have added dimensions to their stories and relationship. For example, neither Lydia nor Jess talk about the Oxford Afro-Caribbean Society which is a second family for most Black people who attend all-white, oppressive spaces like Oxbridge.
The provocative title suggests this will be a play which interrogates what it means to be Black. What does it mean to speak on behalf of a Black country from which you don’t originate based only because you share the same skin colour and not the same history or inherited trauma? What is the biological, social, and cultural essence of Blackness? Colorism is no undocumented thing, and at a university like Oxford, your proximity to whiteness is cultural capital. This is a cultural phenomenon which could have been explored through looking at Jess’s privilege through the point of view of Lydia. Instead, the play felt more invested in Jess’s journey, relationships, and interiority, which meant Lydia became sidelined. She spends half of the play in absentia, having decided to go back to London for the rest of the term. We don’t get to learn much of her experience of racism except for one outburst before her suspension. Even the scene that we see with the porter, where she is unable to get to her tutorial in time because she doesn’t have her ID on her, doesn’t have gravity to it – and this is despite how brilliantly Emily Olum plays Lydia’s frustrations.
In this play, there are already more white characters than characters of Black descent and choosing to have Lydia be suspended only plays into colorism. Whose stories deserve the most time? Which Black people get to be heard and which Black people are silenced? Unfortunately, I know Black students who have had to leave Oxbridge for a few weeks, who have been at the brink of dropping out not just because of racist incidents but because of how poorly the College has dealt with it, and Lydia’s speech isn’t speaking for these people. She talks of going into shops and feeling stared at, which is only the tip of the overwhelming scrutiny one feels – and also ironically the overwhelming invisibility one feels in social and romantic settings – as a dark-skinned woman. While she is still on stage, Lydia objects to Jess being made the face of the campaign – why isn’t a Zimbabwean student spearheading it? However, this is only done in passing and neverly properly explored.
Not only is Jess’s story told at the expense of Lydia’s, but Jess as a character (played, it must be noted, by the writer) is frustratingly contradictory. Instead of seeing Lydia’s struggles with feeling alienated and not heard, we watch Jess’s relationship troubles with her ‘blokey’ boyfriend. The second scene is devoted to their romantic-comicsque first date. While it garnered huge laughs from the audience, it fundamentally didn’t drive forward the action of the story. Throughout the play, Jess dismisses Lydia as histrionic, stating that her standoffishness is the reason she’s not fitting in – and then later monologues about how she feels left out in certain social circles. When Jess eventually breaks up with her boyfriend, it is not because of his affiliation with racist football and rugby lads but because he exasperatedly says that she is not Black, a sentiment which she herself espouses earlier in the play.
Jess/Denny ends the play standing up in a Union debate about whether the statue should be taken down, saying the line, ‘we want to open up a conversation’. The problem is – we don’t. Black students who campaigned for the removal of the statue weren’t interested in deluging the process with bureaucratic procedures and meetings. This final line, along with the rest of the play, was differing, opting for a more whitewashed portrayal of what is an uncomfortable and painful reality. Sitting in that majority-white audience as one of three girls of Black descent in my Cambridge college year group, I felt unable to connect to the play. I didn’t see my experiences as a dark-skinned woman at that sort of university accurately and sensitively represented.