cheeky little brown Review: A story of Black friendship, heartbreak, and Queer relationships
Nkenna Akunna’s cheeky little brown takes what initially appears to be a familiar tale to many – the awkward experience and feeling of a childhood friendship fading with the onset of adulthood. Instead, the production presents us with a far more complex story of Black friendship, heartbreak, and Queer relationships.
Starting in the midst of her best friend Gemma’s birthday party, our leading (and only) lady – Lady (excuse the pun), navigates a night out in London, signposting us along the way of her whistle-stop tour with some truly enjoyable and versatile set design.
From confetti vomit to balloon letters spelling out various signs (my favourite design choice), playwright Akunna and director Chinonyerem Odimba waste not a moment of the runtime. Scene changes are not only a smooth necessity but an interesting part of the musical that I honestly looked forward to each time. Tiajna Amayo, whom The Mancunion recently interviewed, acknowledged when discussing her experience performing that “Yes, it’s hard to do but the products that we received out of it have been incredible.”
Her dedication to the movement and process of the one-woman show shines through in her ease on stage, moving between her marks with obvious intentionality that is only seen in how seamlessly the show runs from scene to scene.
cheeky little brown wasn’t only visually interesting but also auditorily, with immersive sound design and, of course, singing. The star, Amayo, a clearly gifted singer, uses her ability well. While the first break into song did initially surprise me, I quickly came to look forward to each original song. However, I often found myself wishing throughout that they were repurposed hit songs, just so I might be able to listen to them after the show.
This is especially complementary as someone who has often found, despite how much I may enjoy the songs themselves, that musicals never quite strike the balance of a talking-to-songs ratio, leaving me wishing for more dialogue. This was not the case with cheeky little brown, with my feelings perfectly summed up by Amayo: “I think the music is there not only to break up some of the text and kind of give an inner voice to how lady’s feeling.” Each song was enjoyable, catchy, and added to the experience without taking away from intimate moments found in internal monologues to the audience, or the final confrontation with Gemma in the last fifteen minutes of the show.
In terms of interaction with the audience, Akunna used any and all awkwardness to her favour, making it feel as though stiff audience participation was a part of the musical, part of the in-show reaction to Lady’s often cringe-worthy, attention-seeking antics. Similarly, great direction was made of the performer, Amayo, as the singular stage presence. Akunna’s writing choices for when to embody characters, or in some notable cases, simply relaying their actions to us, were clearly intentional, and definitely achieved the desired effect during the climax of the show.
Overall the musical was an enjoyable watch, though I did find that the abruptness of the ending slightly soured the show for me – but that may just be my inner hopeless romantic! Regardless, the musical gives an insightful view into the complexities of racialised relationships: from interacting with new hoity-toity white friends to adapting to the new changed version of an old familiar face.
When asked about friendship breakups, Amayo commented: “Her best friend, has chosen to be around different people and move in with different people and started this life with new friends. It does feel like okay, what, was I not good enough? Was that life not good enough for you? Am I not good enough for you? Am I generally not good enough? And I think that’s heartbreaking to watch and act because you’re like, it’s nothing really to do with you. […] it’s just that people move and they grow and they change.”
The added perspective of queerness and how this muddies the line between platonic and not so much, further deepens one’s viewing of the show. And as Amayo highlighted in her interview: “Blackness, queerness it’s not a monolith. And everyone’s experience of those elements will be different. And I think every element, as long as it’s not bringing other people down, needs to be explored and needs to be told and needs to be brought to the forefront for people to understand.”
cheeky little brown does exactly that, bringing to the foreground one such experience from a myriad of possibilities, helping to broaden conversations beyond the singular expectation of black queer-dom. Pivotally, that this story is all told through the sympathetic if messy Lady’s tumultuous night, brings a realness and sincerity to the show that remains throughout the 90-minute runtime.
cheeky little brown has now finished its run at Manchester’s The Lowry but will be making its way to Coventry and Derby until November 2 2023.