Tracey Gordon, riotous and rude, is the sort of girl you would avoid on the bus. But, as Michaela Coel reminds us, she is also just a teenager, navigating her way through school, sex and friendships with little knowhow and only a fistful of attitude to see her on her way.
Coel – who, as well as appearing in the superior Channel 4 gangster drama Top Boy and the National Theatre’s recent Blurred Lines, is an award-winning performance poet – wrote Chewing Gum Dreams while she was a drama student. In 2012 it won the Alfred Fagon Award, which celebrates new work by British playwrights of Caribbean and African descent. It is a one-woman 45-minute monologue inspired by Coel’s childhood in Hackney, east London.
We enter an early-noughties world of teenage cockiness, Craig David and filthy banter: the piece is devilishly funny. But this is far from a carefree childhood. Tracey’s world is a dark place. A schoolteacher gives up on her; issues of race mingle with school bus bullying, slick and cruel; sexual violence gives way to teenage pregnancy.
Coel performs with a fast-paced poetry and fearlessness, bringing multiple characters to life with vocal and physical fluency. There’s Alisha, who sells bagels and condoms at break time, Connor, a white boy who feels Tracey up on the bus, and Candice, her best friend. Such swift handling of character occasionally leaves the viewer reeling and wondering who’s speaking, but it effectively evokes the tumult of classroom backchat.
No apologies are made for Tracey, who is often unlikeable. So keen is she to please her peers that she is often the class bully. Yet it becomes clear that she is a victim too, as when we see her through the eyes of her white boyfriend’s mother, who wishes to curtail the burgeoning relationship because Tracey is black. And as the audience becomes aware of such big and ugly issues, it moves from the position of bystander, of casual observer on the bus, to sympathetic witness of individual lives.
Director Nadia Fall, with lighting and sound from Jamie Spirito and Mike Walker, carries us seamlessly from the school bus to the classroom, to a rave and, finally, to a hospital. Coel leaves Tracey at Candice’s bedside in what is an eloquent expression of the strength of friendship between teenage girls. Despite the darkness of this broken society, Coel’s final message is one of hope.