Retrograde, Ryan Calais Cameron’s gripping new play tells the true story of the caveats placed on Sidney Poitier as a rising star in 1950’s Hollywood, amid a climate of anti-Communist fever and rampant racism.
It’s a hot summer in New York 1954, and aspiring actor Poitier is offered a lucrative contract to play the lead in the NBC network film drama, A Man Is Ten Feet Tall. Poitier knows the job could make him a household name.
However, it is clear at the meeting to sign the contract for the TV film with the aspiring writer of the movie Bobby, and tyrannical NBC lawyer Larry Parks, that NBC, bolstered by the FBI and fanatic McCarthyite politicians, are convinced that the burgeoning civil rights movement is all part of a communist plot.
They are looking for a Judas figure who will betray the film industries more vociferous and eminent black activists, and Parks is determined that Poitier should accept his 30 pieces of silver before enabling the actor’s career to go ahead.
Poitier already has a reputation for being ‘difficult’ for turning down the lead role of Zeke Ward in the film the The Phenix City Story because it didn’t align with his values.
Parks threatens to malign Poitier, and effectively end his movie career by getting his name blacklisted on the McCarthy Red Channels unless he betrays a popular black activist actor because he openly speaks out against American treatment of African Americans.
Poitier responds: “All this time I thought I wasn’t getting work because I am black and now I discover it’s because I am red!”
Unfolding in real time over 90 minutes, Retrograde focuses on Poitier’s struggle with his own personal career ambitions when weighed against his own values and identity.
Proving that For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy (now making it’s mark in the West End) is not a one hit wonder, Ryan Calais Cameron’s Retrograde, has the pace of a knife edge thriller that adroitly manoeuvres around shifting power dynamics led by swordplay dialogue.
Ivanno Jeremiah delivers an authentic and commanding performance as Poitier. Daniel Lapaine is wonderfully repugnant as the slimly lawyer Mr Parks, while Ian Bonar perfectly captures the emotional ambivalence of Bobby. Director Amit Sharma’s tight direction always stays on the pulse for this compelling new work.