Playwright Chinonyerem Odimba said in a Tweet on Valentine’s Day that Princess and the Hustler is her love letter to Bristol.
And some of the city’s biggest heroes, including civil rights activists Roy Hackett and Paul Stephenson, are in the audience to see how this story unfolds Bristol Old Vic’s Weston Studio on Thursday evening.
The tale of one girl’s hopes and dreams, and her family’s struggle to get by when the odds are stacked against them, plays out against the backdrop of the Bristol Bus Boycott in the 1960s – a seminal moment in the fight against racial discrimination – in this Eclipse Theatre production.
Phyllis Princess James, played effortlessly by Kudzai Sitima, is the utterly endearing 10-year-old star, who has her sights set on the Weston-Super-Mare Beauty Contest crown. With the winnings, she plans to buy her mum a big new house, and perhaps a bicycle for herself.
With her faint Bristolian twang and infectious energy, Princess captures hearts from the beginning. Her joyous dancing even melts the formidable façade of her mum, Mavis (Donna Berlin), who is working all hours to put food on the table and doesn’t have time for frivolous pageant fantasies.
Enter ‘the hustler’ Wendell (Seun Shote), Princess’ long lost dad, to a not-altogether friendly reception from Mavis and Princess’ brother, Wendell Junior (Fode Simbo) – a budding photographer working hard to save for his apprenticeship.
Wendell has returned from Liverpool, bringing with him a daughter, Lorna (Emily Burnett).
Set in 1963-64, as civil rights campaigners were taking to the streets to protest against a colour bar that prevents black people working on the city’s buses, the play is powerful and important.
Its magic comes in the deft writing and rapport between the key characters that makes it so relatable and a joy to watch. Comedy moments – particularly in the first half – come thick, fast and timed to perfection. That it is packed with local references only enhances the play.
Yet to be convinced by the bus boycott, Mavis comments that it’s all very well, but it means you have to walk up the hill to Totterdown; “I tried that once and I had to take a seat half way up,” she says.
While Wendell is, by all accounts, a man who did wrong by his wife and family the first time round, he is also one let down by a country that invited him to come and work, only to cast him aside and treat him as a second class citizen. It is the tale of so many of the Windrush generation, who gave so much to Britain only to face discrimination and hardship.
Margot (Jade Yourell) with her thick, occasionally dubious, Bristolian accent is a larger-than-life surrogate aunt to Princess, encouraging her with photos of beauty queens and promising to take her to Weston-Super-Mare – a place where they have choc ices and donkeys, and – according to Mavis– is full of sin.
Margot’s love for Mavis and the girls is evident, but her inherent prejudice shows through when it comes down to who should have the jobs on the buses.
As the story unfolds, Princess founds out what it is to be black and beautiful in a city that perceives beauty through a white-only prism. As her innocent happiness lifts the audience in the first half, her sadness is like a stab to the heart.
The play, as it deftly captures the complexities of people and politics, is captivating, powerful and thoroughly enjoyable.
When the announcement comes on the radio that the colour bar is lifted, there is barely dry eye in the house, as Wendell sits and weeps.
This is a play with many heroes, but Mavis – with her staunch, unwavering strength of character – is perhaps the ultimate hero. As Princess is left downcast by the hurtful comments and racism of her peers, it is her mum who helps her regain her self-belief.
Speaking in defence of her husband, Mavis says: “If a whole city can change, so can a man.”
Bristol today, where inequality remains all too rife, still has plenty of changing to do. But, as this honest and heartfelt account of the city’s troubled history is testament to, discrimination can be overcome with collective will.
Princess and the Hustler is touring round the country after its stint at Bristol Old Vic, but to watch it in Bristol, in the presence of the heroes who changed the course of history, is a true privilege.
Princess and the Hustler continues at Bristol Old Vic until Saturday, February 23. For more information, visit: www.bristololdvic.org.uk/whats-on/princess-and-the-hustler.
Read more: Preview: Princess & The Hustler