Updated: Sep 21
Review by Harry Bower
On the corner of Coldharbour Lane in Brixton, close to the site of burning buildings during the second Brixton Uprising in 1985, stands Brixton House, a new performing arts venue. The riot was sparked by the wrongful killing of Cherry Groce, the sister of Sutara Gayle, by police, in her own bedroom. It’s somewhat symbolic, then, that it is here audiences should bear witness to the blueprint of Gayle’s extraordinary life. An accomplished actor, performer, and legendary reggae artist known as Lorna Gee, she crafts multimedia projection, atmospheric lighting, and mesmerising musical performance to fantastic effect in a raw, emotional, and honest representation of her personal spiritual awakening.
From the moment she enters the stage, you could sense an air of power hung above the auditorium as if the audience were collectively holding their breath. Removing her shoes at the edge of the performance space, as if symbolically and respectfully connecting with the moment, Gayle calmly took her place centre stage. Lights up. What happened next was a frenetic ninety-minute guided tour of her life, marshalled by the voiceover of her brother Mooji, a respected guru, bookended by panoramic projection representing a silent retreat in India in which our performer owes so much of her awakening to.
Stories begin to unfold, as Gayle inhabits characters from her past and present; family members, music managers, friends, abusers – as well as caricatures of her past self. Naturally with one person playing so many roles and time periods it is sometimes hard to follow, though the narrative sweet spot is hit in the final third when everything comes together in the most satisfying of ways.
That’s what The Legends of Them does so well – there is light and shade in the piece if not in equal measure, then with a strong enough ratio to uplift the audience and fill them with hope as the piece comes to an end. The humour throughout is key to alleviating those darker and more introspective moments of panic and tragedy. Gayle, both as Gee and herself, is a lyrical mastermind, weaving original tracks into the story arc with a deft touch, slapping laugh out loud lyrics and one-liners in-between heartbreaking anecdotes and fascinating spiritual insights.
One of the best constructed sections tells the story of multiple school expulsions, and another brilliantly eulogises her relationship with her sewing machine. Religion and spirituality permeate most parts of this production but never in a self-indulgent or erroneous way. An exploration into Gee’s musical career and hearing her own debut single on the radio for the first time whilst serving time in Holloway Prison, was surprisingly emotional for me.
Director Jo McInnes has done a stellar job at recreating the intimacy of the most vulnerable moments in Gayle’s life and overwhelming body of complex and nuanced experiences. Notably when the story of Cherry Groce’s killing is being told Gayle faces away from the projection and the gaze of the audience, in a physical rejection of the attention and spotlight. A retelling of her coming out story, an amusing but not altogether happy memory, is suitably given space to breathe. Later, she climbs the towering speaker stack to deliver a final devastating blow of advice to her admiring audience before the lights go out, standing strong and tall in profile but with a weariness which suggests the journey has been far from easy.
It might be challenging for someone like me, who has limited reggae music and DJ exposure, limited connection to Brixton or Jamaica, and no meaningful self-identified connection to spirituality, to identify with a lot of the themes explored by Sutara Gayle and her co-creator, Nina Lyndon, in The Legends of Them. It is testament to both artists that they have created a piece of art which is not only effective in its portrayal of one person’s incredible life, but that it is fully accessible. More than that – it encourages its audience to open their minds and perhaps even ignite their own musical or spiritual awakening.
The Legends of Them plays at Brixton House until 30 September 2023. For more information and tickets visit https://brixtonhouse.co.uk/shows/the-legends-of-them/
Photos by Harry Elletson