Funeral Flowers at Bunker Theatre: some of the most beautiful things can grow from the dirt
Southwark’s Bunker Theatre, adorned with flora, is the ideal home for Funeral Flowers, a play that follows 17-year-old would-be florist Angelique as she navigates the harsh realities of being a young black woman in foster-care. Emma Dennis-Edward’s award-winning, solo-production is a striking example of how sometimes the most piercing stories translate best on low-key, intimate stages.
The play, which was initially a site-specific production for the Royal Court Tottenham Festival, uses rhyming couplets and witty one-liners to counterbalance themes of abandonment, loneliness, and sexual and emotional abuse. Angelique aspires to run a successful floristry business — she’s already got a job helping at a wedding -- but her hopes for finding safety and security with her mother when she gets out of prison are troubled by her misguided, abusive boyfriend.
Captivated, I cringed, laughed and cried, often literally by Angelique’s side. Although Funeral Flowers is a one-woman show, Dennis-Edwards is never alone: the audience is made part of the set, where we’re encouraged us to try our own hands at flower arranging. Any clunky moments (there were a few difficult scene transitions where Dennis-Edwards had to manoeuvre an audience scattered literally at her feet) were overshadowed by the conviction of her performance, and the keenness of her observations as a writer.
In a counter-intuitively tender scene, Angelique lashes out at her foster mother, using homophobic slurs against her in an attempt to deflect from the hurt and confusion she’s suffering in that moment. Her defensive, alienating reaction while at her most vulnerable felt representative of so many adolescences burdened by the kind of disappointment and adversity that force (often working-class) girls to grow up before their time. The scene also addresses the problem of homophobia in black communities with refreshing frankness. Angelique immediately acknowledges her wrongdoing but has too much pride to apologise straight away — her harmful words aren’t borne of real feeling, but of absorbed cultural homophobia.
The play’s success at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe is further proof that no one is better-equipped to tell the stories of black female trauma than black women themselves. We’re still so underrepresented in the creative industries that, often, even when our stories are told, the characters that populate them lack dimension because we aren’t the ones telling them. Funeral Flowers defies this on all fronts. The lack of supporting actors means that we experience the entire narrative through Angelique’s eyes — her perspective is central to the story in a way that is all-too-rare in retellings of black female victimhood. Dennis-Edwards’ close work with director Rachel Nwokoro has resulted in a performance with enough depth and tangibility to move any audience.
Although gritty and uncomfortable to watch in parts, I left The Bunker feeling optimistic. Angelique’s floral arrangements are a celebration of her resilience. In her hands, they become a symbol of possibility and a reminder that some of the most beautiful things in the world can grow — quite literally — from the dirt.
Catch Funeral Flowers at The Bunker until May 4th.