Understanding The Princess and the Hustler

The Princess and the Hustler was written by Chinonyerem Odimba, a Nigerian-born playwright and poet. It was first performed at the Bristol Old Vic in February 2019.

In the play, a black family living in 1960s Bristol experiences upheaval when the children’s father, Wendall, returns after a decade’s absence, with a new daughter in tow.

10-year-old, Princess, who dreams of winning a beauty pageant, embraces the new family members, especially her half-sister, Lorna. However, tension arises between Wendall and his wife, Mavis, and son, Wendall Junior. This is due to his abandonment of the family.  

It takes place across three Acts and mostly takes place in the James family’s flat. Although, the occasional scene takes place on the Bristol Docks.

Historical background

The story takes place against the backdrop of the Bristol Bus Boycott, which occurred in 1963 as a result of a bus company’s refusal to employ any Black or Asian conductors. Wendall achieves atonement for abandoning his family through his prominent role in this activism. He rejoins the family with a new sense of responsibility.

List of characters

To help you remember the different characters, here’s a list of each character and a short description:

  • Princess: A 10-year-old girl who dreams of winning a beauty pageant. She is an imaginative and spirited young girl, deeply affected by the racial prejudice she experiences.
  • Mavis: Princess’s mother and Wendall’s estranged wife. She is a strong woman who has held her family together in Wendall’s absence. However, this was not without a fair share of resentment and anger towards him.
  • Wendall (The Hustler): Princess’s father who returns after a decade’s absence. Previously involved in criminal activities, Wendall has a newfound sense of responsibility, partly influenced by his involvement in the Bristol Bus Boycott. He aims to make amends and rebuild his family.
  • Wendall Junior: Princess’s older brother who harbours deep resentment towards his father for abandoning the family. He has a protective stance towards Princess and is cautious of Wendall’s attempts to reintegrate into their lives.
  • Lorna: Wendall’s younger mixed-race daughter from another relationship, who joins the family upon Wendall’s return. Lorna struggles with her identity, feeling like she doesn’t fully belong to any culture or family.
  • Margot: Mavis’s white neighbour who initially has conflicting views on the Bus Boycott and misunderstands Wendall’s relationship with Mavis. Despite their differences, she offers support and understanding to Princess during a time of need.
  • Leon: Wendall Junior’s friend, who appears in a scene where he assists in bringing the girls (Princess and Lorna) home from the docks. His role is minor, but he contributes to the unfolding of the narrative by being a part of Wendall Junior’s support system.

Act 1

This act introduces us to the family at the heart of the story and brings Wendall, the estranged father, back into their lives, igniting tensions and revealing past betrayals.

Scene-by-scene breakdown

Scene 1In the beginning, Princess, along with her mother Mavis and brother Wendall Junior, share a light-hearted moment. Suddenly, a knock on the door interrupts their joy. Mavis answers it and then immediately shuts it again
Scene 2The knocking continues and, before Mavis can stop her, Princess opens the front door. The unexpected guest is revealed to be Wendall, the long-lost husband of Mavis. He tries to come in, but Mavis stops him. When Princess won’t stop talking, Mavis slaps her face.
Scene 3Mavis holds a knife up to Wendall, threatening to kill him. He leaves, but then starts knocking on the door again.

When Mavis opens the door, preparing to attack her husband, she sees him holding the hand of a girl who is slightly younger than Princess. As a result, she quickly hides the knife behind her back. Wendall introduces the girl (who is mixed-race) as his daughter, Lorna.
Scene 4Princess is very upset about being slapped, and Wendall Junior comforts her. Lorna is pushed into the room, and after initially being very quiet begins to converse with her two half-siblings.
Scene 5The family gathers for a Christmas dinner. After the meal, they decide that Lorna can stay with the family, but Wendall cannot. A white neighbour, Margot, arrives and flirts with Wendall, mistaking him for Mavis’s brother.
Scene 6Three days later, Wendall takes his daughters to the docks, and they wait with growing impatience while he makes a business arrangement. Wendall Junior and his friend, Leon, see the girls, and Leon takes them home.

This marks an important moment of confrontation between father and son. Wendall Junior confronts his father verbally, telling him to leave the family alone, and then physically. However, Wendall fights him off and tells his son that he wants to “make good” his past mistakes.

Act 2

This act further explores the family’s attempts to rebuild their relationships amidst growing civil unrest. It showcases their personal struggles against the backdrop of the Bristol Bus Boycott, with the characters grappling with racial discrimination and identity crisis.

Scene-by-scene breakdown

Scene 1We move to May 1963, and Princess is upset when a classmate doesn’t invite her to her birthday party due to racial discrimination.

Wendall and Mavis become closer and they dance together, before Wendall Junior interrupts them. He tells them about a protest being organised for the Bus Boycott, and Wendall agrees to join.
Scene 2After a night out, Margot and Wendall argue about the merits of the Bus Boycott, with Margot seeing them as an unnecessary nuisance.

Wendall vows to become a dedicated activist for the cause and Mavis is proud of him for that. After this, Wendell and Mavis rekindle the romantic side of their marriage.
Scene 3Wendall Junior gets attacked by racists after the protest, and his father goes out to find the perpetrators. Lorna becomes upset about the way she is treated for being mixed-race, feeling that she is ‘only half’ of any culture or family.
Scene 4Margot visits Mavis, and their relationship is shown to be strained because of their opposing views on the boycott.

Mavis reveals that Wendall had a good desk job in the military in Jamaica, and was transferred to England only to be given a much lower position. As a result, he turned to crime, seeing it as a better alternative to working a job with few prospects.
Scene 5Wendall tries to repair relations with his son, but Wendall Junior offers his father his life savings if he leaves the family.

Having given up on her dream of being a beauty queen due to cruel comments about her appearance, Princess cuts up the costumes that she used as part of her imagined beauty pageants.

Act 3

The final act brings a mixture of emotions and developments, as the family navigates crises and eventual reconciliation. It portrays the characters coming to terms with their complex histories, and finding unity and hope in the midst of the success of the Bristol Bus Boycott.

Scene-by-scene breakdown

Scene 1Mavis looks frantically for Princess, who has gone missing and left cut-off strands of her hair behind. Wendall Junior guesses that his father has taken her away with the bribe money. Therefore, they go out in search of her.
Scene 2Margot arrives home after a night out and finds Princess hiding in her flat. Princess tells her about the racist abuse she has suffered at school.

To comfort her, Margot tucks her up in bed and goes to find Mavis to let her know where she is.
Scene 3Margot brings Princess home. Initially, Margot is angry with her neighbour, but then soon realises the support she has given Princess. This causes the two neighbours to reconcile.
Scene 4Wendall had disappeared for two days and is presumed to have abandoned the family again. However, he returns home drunk and triumphant, revealing that the Bus Boycott has been successful.

He proposes to Mavis, wanting a fresh start for their marriage, and vows to get a job on the docks to support his family.
Scene 5Mavis gathers the family to go out and celebrate the victory of the boycott. She lifts the spirits of the downbeat Princess by instilling her with confidence and appreciation of their race and culture.

After this, the family comes together for a unifying photograph, taken by Wendall Junior.
Scene 6In Princess’s imagination, Wendall wears a dress and makeup at Princess’s order. He presents his daughter with a crown to signify her victory in a beauty contest.

She joins a line of ‘the most beautiful Black women of all sizes and nations’ and together they take a bow.