There is nowhere more appropriate for Princess & The Hustler to be performed than at the innovative Bristol Old Vic, given that this new play documents the story of the infamous Bristol race actions of 1963. As such, it was an honour to be sitting in the audience with Paul Stephenson OBE: the very man who spearheaded those pivotal events 56 years ago and who is rightly name-checked in the script.
Written by Bristol-based Chinonyerem Odimba (who was also behind the all-female production of Medea at Bristol Old Vic two years ago), Princess & The Hustler focuses on 10-year-old Phyllis Princess James who, in 1963, is determined to win the glamorous Weston-super-Mare Beauty Contest. But Bristol in 1963 is a city on the cusp of change as the black community start campaigning for their basic rights in the face of hostility.
All of this means that young Princess has to work extra hard to find out what true beauty really means. Chinonyerem explains in an interview with The Bristol Magazine that she wanted to “write a story that spoke to what I call ‘black girl joy’ – a celebration of what it is to be a young, black, British girl full of dreams for the future, and the joys of being young and innocent, as well as the magic of that.”
As Princess, Kudzai Sitima puts in a strong and compelling performance that guides us through the events her family is at the centre of, and through her innocent eyes we share with her as she learns about the realities and injustices of the world.
On Christmas Day, Princess and her older brother Junior (Fode Simbo) and hardworking mother Mavis (Donna Berlin) are settling down to a modest meal when their day is interrupted by the return of 'the hustler', aka Wendell (Seun Shote) - Mavis' husband who has been absent for all of Princess' life. To cap things off, he has brought with him his younger daughter Lorna (Emily Burnett)... who has a white mother.
This family drama provides the focus for Princess & The Hustler. As the family initially resists the return of Wendell but welcomes Lorna, the arrival of the newcomers sparks unrest. At school, Princess starts to realise that she is different from her new sister, who is suddenly much more popular than black-skinned Princess ever was. Mavis' friend Margot (Jade Yourell) reveals her casual racism, when she agrees that black people have no place taking jobs from white people. While Wendell throws himself into the 60-day Bristol bus boycott, in protest at the bus companies refusing to employ black people. Against all of this, Princess struggles to come to terms with a different kind of beauty and her lifelong dream of winning the Weston-super-Mare Beauty Contest.
Chinonyerem's script is believable and emotive; there were lots of audience members dabbing their eyes by the end of the performance. While Simon Kenney's recreation of 1960s' interiors and fashions is both jarring and fun to soak up.
Princess & The Hustler is an important new play that tells the story of a significant point in Bristol's history, and shows us that there are still many lessons we need to learn.
Princess & The Hustler is performed at Bristol Old Vic until 23 February 2019. Click here for more information and to buy tickets.