Obama and Me is among most compelling solo shows I've ever seen. It's a political play from Sylvia Arthur, a black Brit, documenting her struggle for freedom of movement and racial equality. She already has an agent for a half-written book on the subject – but in frustration at the slow pace of writing, the scale of her endeavour and her own lack of time, she wrote a play as well.
She tells a story of put-downs in the workplace; of resentment among immigrants, all striving to find a home in an EU country; and of being defined by the colour of her skin, not her British passport. Originally, her family came from Ghana, but she grew up in London and has a foot in each continent. She will not deny her African roots, and her experience of being overlooked and gently mocked at work only strengthens her resolve to fight for the freedom to realise her potential.
Arthur's career sets the context: working as a private consultant, she facilitates discussions and brokers freedom of movement across the EU. Based in Brussels, she travels the length and breadth of Europe, turning her cheek as the insults fly. She does not encounter actual violence very often, probably because she is middle-class, but is acutely conscious of the everyday prejudice endemic in European society. It all makes her exactly the right person to discuss barriers and discrimination, but also to embody the European dream.
As an immigrant, she must be polite, calm and composed in the face of racism and discrimination. Her heroes are the Obama family: above all Michelle Obama, who embodies the American dream, a black woman with nothing left to prove. Clips from Mr Obama, Mrs Obama and even a child serve to break up the monologue, and Arthur demonstrates how dangerous it is to be black by showing a series of photographs including black people who were brutally murdered. Among them, of course, is ten-year old Damilola Taylor, who died in a stairwell on a council estate in Peckham.
For me, the problem with this show is that it’s very static, partly due to its form as a pure monologue. It’s packed full of ideas – I took down more notes about Obama and Me than any other play this year – but I wonder if the introduction of more characters would heighten the effect. I understand that the novel came first, and it will be scholarly and full of substance, but as a piece of theatre it's short of drama.
Despite this reservation, Obama and Me is a courageous and authentic story – the story of one woman’s fight for acceptance, multi-culturalism and freedom of movement across Europe. It's showing for another two nights; don't miss it.