He had oil in his beard and defiance in his eye. Both gleamed in the October sunshine streaming through the windows at the back of the immigration hall at Heathrow Airport Terminal 2.
The meticulously styled facial hair, brownish-red and thick, would have garnered attention in normal times, but it was even more of a sight to behold during the Wars on Covid and Terror. He was the only person not wearing a mask among the hundreds of passengers getting ready to queue up for passport control: a real crowd displeaser, this face-freedom fighter.
Back in Dulles we’d registered him as the combative type. His whiskers had been on full display there too. He seemed eager to face down anyone who would challenge his unmaskedness, including the airline employees who would allow him on the plane—or try to deny him entry. Across the departure area eyes scanned upward from their devices to focus on the man as he raised his voice at the gate attendants. One had to assume that masking was the issue. He got onto his tiptoes and into the headspace of the United Airlines women towering over him.
“Napoleon Complex” should have flashed on the reader board next to the gate, a diagnosis confirmed by the man’s ramrod posture, frock coat with fur collar, polished leather boots and leather backpack dangling with camo water bottle, truncheon-like umbrella, and black-ops skateboard helmet.
Ten minutes after vanquishing the United Airlines women, he marched crisply down the gangway in front of us, masklessly celebrating his decisive early victories in the campaign to cross the Atlantic and pierce the British Covid Defenses.
Eight hours later in Heathrow, he was just ahead of us in the enormous passport line. As we slogged our way through the cordoned maze, I imagined him at the head of the Grande Armée heading East towards Moscow as he laid out his strategy to his Josephine. Her face was also unveiled and she wore a lavish coat that feathered down to her booted ankles.
Just as the imperious pair came to the end of the labyrinth and was about to charge into one of the electronic passport control sluices, a squad of blue-blazered border guards came and interdicted them. The bearded one put up spirited verbal resistance, but this was to be his Waterloo. The British home guard whisked His Royal Hirsuteness and Consort off to what the rank and file hoped was some interrogation room in the bowels of the airport—a nine-day quarantine on St. Helena minus the rocky shores and ocean views.
That this self-crowning monarch of land, sea, and sky had been deposed was one of the gratefully received bonuses of travelling during the pandemic.
On the underground into central London there were few masks. I thought of Napoleon, probably still stuck on his holding cell. Out on the streets other dramas unfolded. As we wheeled our luggage through the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea we noticed another kind of queue outside a gas station on the Old Brompton Road, this one made of cars.
That “Old” before “Brompton” is the crucial adjective. The byways are narrow in this graceful and outrageously expensive district of white Georgian and brick Victorian terraced houses. Yet the automobiles have gotten ever bigger over the last decades. The streets are clogged with late-model Bavarian muscle cars and Land Rovers, the latter long ago dubbed “Chelsea Tractors.” Even though waxed to a sheen more brilliant than the beard mentioned above and never flecked by the even the tiniest dab of mud, these all-wheel-drive machines are meant to conjure images of the country estates all aspire to around here and some indeed lord over.
Of late the international press has been full of reports of shortages on supermarket shelves and of what the Brits call petrol. Brexit appears finally to be taking its toll with the exodus of truck drivers back to their homelands far from the British Isles.
At the Shell Station on the Old Brompton Road I paused to watch gridlock take hold. A big Mercedes blocked traffic as it tried to find its way into the queue to fill up. Horns blared, fists were raised.
Though the joys of walking are limited in Chelsea—what with those Tractors bearing down on foreign pedestrians in unexpected directions— watching the traffic around the gas station get ever more impacted was fun. No pity issued from me for the petrol-thirsty owners stuck in their cars. Then I noticed that most of the drivers of these big black beasts were themselves Black, even if the population in South Kensington is overwhelming white. It occurred to me that the drivers might be servants of the rich and that maybe they’d been dispatched to battle for the last drops of the lifeblood of British Mobility—not across the class divide but from London to deepest darkest Hampshire. Having disabused myself of the possibly errant notion that a certain justice was again being meted out, I moved on.
Our day-two Covid tests came back negative and we strolled down to the Royal Court theatre at Sloan Square. It was an American play—Is God Is by Aleshea Harris, which premiered in 2018 in New York and opened last month here in London. It’s an odd title. “God” is the name adopted by the mother in the play. She had been badly burned eighteen years earlier after being set on fire by her abusive husband and thought dead by her adult twin daughters, who survived the blaze. Wheeled out propped up in a hospital bed early on in the narrative, God is a mass of burned skin with clumps of knotted hair dangling in her scarred face. She’s a Jabba the Hutt-like figure who summons her twins to her bedside and commands them to seek vengeance: she wants the evil dad “dead, real dead.”
These two daughterly beings are perhaps the two “Is”-es on either side of God. One of them is decisive and ready for vengeance; the other, more badly burned than her sister, is the “emotional” one, inclined towards forgiveness.
What follows is a bloody epic compacted into a brisk and brutal ninety minutes of action uninterrupted by intermission. The unfailingly imaginative, often hilarious script supplies unforgettable set-pieces for each of the eight actors; four men, four women—two wives, two husbands, two sets of twins fathered by the Bad Dad eighteen years apart. It’s a Black Comedy of Errors brilliantly mashed-up with the Oresteia, Tarantino with Aeschylus. Equipped with vivid photographic backdrops and inter-titles for the chapters (the last one is “The Showdown), Is God Is is a Neo-Western/Noir set in the bright California light and starring a brilliant all-Black cast.
Armed with a sock weaponized with a rock picked up in the Western desert on the way from the Deep South to the City of Angels, the female twins exact revenge on the dad’s venal lawyer (who’s recently been left by his wife/secretary) after they bust in on him at his office in the San Fernando Valley. The attorney has just drunk a bottle of whisky and taken a bunch of sleeping pills, but as he succumbs he resists the girls with surges of masculine bluster, comic and toxic.
As at the law office, the vengeance-seeking daughters arrive at their next bloody station at fateful moments. Pointed by the lawyer to a hilltop house of “yellow clapboard with lavender shutters” they intercept the Bad Dad’s second wife just as she is trying to flee him, the final bags of groceries she’s brought home dumped on the driveway in an act of frustrated domestic rebellion. The girls intercept the second wife on the road down from the hill and then make their way up to the cute house where the boys think they are strippers ordered up by their dad to celebrate their seventeenth birthday just two weeks away—female twins sent to please male twins, rather half-siblings intent on avenging their mother’s burns as well as their own.
Harris supplies each of these actors with unforgettable set-pieces and they deliver them with tremendous technical skill and comic relish. Each must act as his or her own chorus, too, commenting as if in voice-over on what they do, then returning to their character’s own lines in virtuosic oscillation: the Black soccer mom on the brink of a nervous breakdown expressed in white suburban diction that is the opposite of the Black southern drawl of the girls who’ve come for her; the lazy, fantastically selfish teenage sons, one convinced that his awful poetry is totally “dope” and monetizable, his brother a gay nerd with a taste for arugula (it’s both “coniferous and dextoxifying” he tells us, deploying a couple of SAT words that will help him ascend the economic ladder.) The Dad is a suave Prince of Darkness, duplicitous, unrepentant and vicious.
There are real flames at the start and at the finish.
The ushers informed all ticketholders on entering the theatre that masks must worn throughout the performance. In our row everyone but us took theirs off even before the show started. They seemed to be friends of some of the cast members, and they laughed uproariously at the dark humor and jumped to their feet to applaud after the final on-stage reckoning and bows. The confrontation with Fate was something for the stage, not all the world.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical Notebooks. He can be reached at email@example.com.)