Feast of words: Yomi Sode and the theatre poets stirring a new style
‘It’s amazing how not-so-simple something simple can be.” This line, near the start of Yomi Sode’s show Coat, gains a fragrance and pungency over the hour like the tomato stew that he lovingly cooks up on stage, chanting its ingredients as he chops and stirs: “Olive oil, onion, tatashe, plum tomatoes, Maggi … and my secret ingredient.”
He is preparing the stew for a meal with his mother while his child sleeps in a back room. What appears at first to be a simple act of hospitality darkens and deepens as he recounts the life story of a Nigerian like himself, who was transported to London at the age of nine. By the end, the meal has become a reckoning with his family’s expectations of him, and by extension with the social and racial identity of any 21st-century immigrants who find themselves stuck between two cultures.
Coat itself is a show stuck between cultures. Sode comes out of the performance poetry circuit, making his name on YouTube and at festivals (he played Latitude last year). The show was revived for a single night this week by spoken-word producers Apples and Snakes at the Roundhouse in north London after an earlier sellout performance.
Were it produced by a theatre company, it might have a four-week run, and be regarded as a play. It is neatly directed by Thierry Lawson and, though Sode is the only performer, he animates a range of characters and situations, from his inquisitorial mother to his estranged father back in Nigeria and his English schoolfriend, Rob, who – astonishingly to a young Nigerian – backchats his mum in a home that smells of air-freshener and has no pots in the fridge.
This provenance matters because it affects the way a show is seen – or, in the case of spoken word, more often not seen. Poetry for the stage has always had a tricky relationship with poetry for the page, not unlike the relationship of a playtext with a novel: it is designed to be heard and not read.
Were it produced by a theatre company, it might have a four-week run, and be regarded as a play
Its emphasis on words, and on a single poetic sensibility, means that it doesn’t quite belong to theatre, either. Yet Coat belongs to a growing body of work that is creeping up on the theatrical establishment, reasserting the dramatic power of the written word at a time when director’s theatre sometimes seems all-powerful.
Among its highest profile proponents is Kate Tempest, whose most recent portrait of urban disadvantage, Let Them Eat Chaos, was shortlisted for a Mercury prize this year and published as a book-length poem. But there are plenty more up-and-coming stars, from Inua Ellams, whose autobiographical Evening With an Immigrant is currently touring the country, to Richard Marsh, whose Todd & God, in which a petulant deity appoints a hapless Jewish sceptic her messiah, was a hot ticket on the Edinburgh fringe this year.
The work of these theatre poets is at its most potent when the aesthetics of a marginalised art form chime with the representation of marginalised people: it can take you behind the cliche, beneath the skin – and in doing so it is winning audiences. The Roundhouse studio on Tuesday was packed with a young, predominantly black crowd who devoured the words with a palpable hunger, and were vocal in their appreciation.
While Tempest’s work is propelled by anger, Sode – like Illams – is animated by a gentleness, a sweetly self-deprecating humour that itself offers a radical challenge to conventional ideas of masculinity. This plays through Sode’s words and also across his face, as Junior – whether he is a small boy discovering the thrill of Super Nintendo or a teenager ecstatically exploring his girlfriend’s breasts in the back row of a cinema. Scenes that might seem commonplace and simplistic in the written word become potent through performance.
Perhaps because he is so appealing, the least convincing aspect of Junior’s psychological journey is the jeopardy in which his situation places him. “I’m not angry. I’m just stuck … Britain has whitened my insides,” he tells us. I would have liked to be shown more emphatically what “stuck” feels like.
But that is a quibble. Overarching the show, holding it together, is the theme of cooking as both a physical act of communication and homage, and a metaphor for the ebb and flow of cultural power. A sly sub-strand involves the commercialisation of food culture, and its implications for those who aren’t part of the story it tells. “Man go like Jamie,” chants Junior, incanting celebrity chefs to himself as he brandishes his chopping knife over an onion. Tesco never advertises egusi, he remarks later.
By the end he has cooked up his own place in the world, producing a meal that both satisfies his traditionalist mother and caters for a London-born child unfamiliar with very fiery food. Instead of a programme, we are issued with a tomato stew starter kit, which contains two cubes of Maggi seasoning, and the instruction that garlic and rodo (hot peppers) are optional. The secret ingredient remains a mystery – but it is undoubtedly there, and is what makes this show so special.