The QT

Tuesday 23 July 2024

Review: All White Everything But Me, Live Theatre

After the tennis, more tennis. David Whetstone caught the second iteration of Kemi-Bo Jacobs’ homage to a champ
Kemi-Bo Jacobs. Credit: Matt Jamie

Coinciding nicely with Wimbledon, that annual fortnight when everyone notices tennis, is this tour-de-force.

Kemi-Bo Jacobs, an associate artist at Live Theatre, draws on her experience and evident deep well of stamina to tell the story of Althea Gibson, Wimbledon champion in 1957 and ’58.

It’s a breathless telling of a tale with many twists, turns and setbacks, as fast and furious as a tie-break rally in the final set.

And Kemi-Bo, who also wrote it, plays all the parts, not quite striking the ball and then leaping over the net to return it, but not far off.

Althea’s route to the top was an unlikely one.

She was a black American born into a family of cotton pickers and brought up pretty tough, it seems. Her father encouraged her to fight and stick up for herself.

Kemi-Bo gives us the father-and-daughter exchanges, switching from little girl to pugnacious dad and then back in the blink of an eye.

The moment of victory. Credit: Matt Jamie

The move to the New York melting pot of Harlem in the wake of the Great Depression came when she was very young.

It was there, on a sporting programme set up to keep youngsters out of trouble, that her athleticism and will to win were spotted by the man who would introduce her to tennis.

Kemi-Bo, in a kaleidoscopic performance, plays him too.

It was a long way from the playground pastime of paddle tennis to the real thing and back in the 1940s it was as swathed in social etiquette as it is now.

It was also — in America anyway — pretty forbidding territory for a player of colour.

Kemi-Bo, as Althea, mulls over the clothes she’s required to wear. Why so white? Because white is clean and pure, the black girl is told as she pulls on her socks.

We see her in action, Kemi-Bo uttering her lines while energetically miming play, and hear the racist slurs from the crowd that punctuate the silences when she scores against her white opponent.

But Althea, it seems, could please no-one. Black civil rights leaders criticised her for not using her platform — but she was a competitor rather than an activist. She just wanted to win.

The pressures on and off court were clearly immense but her victories won people over.

Kemi-bo Jacobs as Althea Gibson. Credit: Matt Jamie

There was a ticker-tape return to New York after her most notable triumph when she received her Wimbledon trophy from the Queen.

But in the end, Althea Gibson couldn’t afford to continue in the sport at which she excelled. She tried other things before drifting into the obscurity from which Kemi-Bo aimed to lift her with this show.

Seeing someone really go for it is as rewarding in the theatre as in the sporting arena and Kemi-Bo does that on a simple set with a minimum of props (socks but no racquets in sight).

Coached, or rather directed, here by Becky Morris, who sourced film footage to project onto the back wall, Kemi-Bo delivers a full-on performance.

Occasionally, I felt, she might have taken a breath, slowing things down a little and milking the moment. Gamesmanship, they call it in sport. 

But as the lights dimmed and she exited as she had arrived, without fanfare, there was a sense of job done. The applause, for the actress and the woman she plays, was heartfelt.

Finally, it’s nice to see North East theatres supporting good work. This show, under a different director, premiered at Alphabetti two years ago. It was worth a second run out and who would bet against it going on from here?

All White Everything But Me runs until Saturday, July 6. Tickets from the Live Theatre website.

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