Gareth Smith reviews Lights Up: Stripe by Stripe and Other Stories from BBC Radio 4, in which Rakie Ayola performs a selection of stories written by Leonora Brito. Rooted in the multicultural history of Cardiff’s Butetown, the show explores themes of life, love and family, and puts a Welsh stamp on BBC Arts’ Culture in Quarantine campaign.
With theatre re-openings still a distant prospect, BBC Radio 4’s Lights Up strand provides an opportunity to bring plays forestalled by the pandemic to an alternative audience. Their most recent offering, Stripe by Stripe and Other Stories, is the result of National Theatre Wales’ production of Dat’s Love and Other Stories, an event originally staged online in February. The show featured three short stories from Leonora Brito, whose collection of the same name drew heavily on her life growing up in Tiger Bay, performed by renowned Welsh actress Rakie Ayola. In its transition to radio, it gains the commentary of comedian Leroy Brito, interviews with various residents of Cardiff and a broader social history of the area. What might have been a straightforward play recording is transformed into an engaging hybrid of drama, discussion and documentary.
Leroy guides the audience into the narrative of Lights Up: Stripe by Stripe and Other Stories with the image of a train pulling into Cardiff Central station, perhaps for the benefit of national listeners acquainting themselves with the locale. He outlines the multicultural and multiracial history of Tiger Bay, its development into Butetown in the post-war era and the community displacement that occurred as a result of subsequent rehousing. Leroy’s commentary, including discussions with Ayola and Bay residents, informs and compliments Brito’s stories, imbuing them with a historical context and highlighting their indebtedness to the area.
The first tale, ‘Roots’, captures the frustration and confusion of adolescence while maintaining awareness of a complex adult world beyond the developing perspective of its protagonist. The precise details of domestic life sketched by the restless Marcia conjure a vivid backdrop of gossiping friends, petty teachers and the tense relationship between a single father and his teenage daughter. Marcia’s loquacious candidness is interspersed with examples of the racial prejudice she experiences, depicting it a continual presence in a myriad of forms. In being so intensely personal, it is also the most political story of Lights Up: Stripe by Stripe and Other Stories.
‘Very Pleasant Surroundings’ similarly demonstrates Brito’s use of humour to both undercut and enhance serious topics. What begins as the comedic squabbling of a middle-aged couple becomes a haunting meditation on facing death. The sense of claustrophobia and disorientation conveyed from the confines of a hospital bed produces an entirely different tone to ‘Roots’ and is both poignant and disturbing. The final story, ‘Stripe by Stripe’, explores community dynamics via a tale of nosey neighbours, family squabbles and the opening of a new pub. It dramatises the impending threat of redevelopment while offering amusing, and finely drawn, portraits of a diverse community. Each narrative illustrates Brito’s versatility as a storyteller, but they are bound together by a common tension between familiarity and disorientation, feeling rooted and desiring freedom, and community and isolation.
The use of music in and between all three stories provides the show with a concrete sense of both time and place, evoking eras and locations specific to Tiger Bay’s history. The narratives also benefit immensely from Ayola’s performance, which allows her to contribute an emotional range and a sense of authenticity to Brito’s stories. Lights Up: Stripe by Stripe and Other Stories recognises and celebrates Black culture within Wales, which remains a rarity in mainstream media. In light of recent Senedd petitions for our curriculum to reflect Black and POC history, it effectively highlights what a loss it is to not fully acknowledge the diverse social and cultural history within Wales, and is an excellent showcase for Leonora Brito’s work.
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Listen to Lights Up: Stripe by Stripe and Other Stories now on BBC Sounds.
Header image: Lights Up: Stripe by Stripe and Other Stories (Illustration: Kyle Legall).
Gareth Smith is a regular Wales Arts Review contributor.