Strong Black Women Leading the Way in Audio Drama
By Sali Earls
For this month’s podcast review, I wanted to look at dramas led by formidable female characters. There’s often criticism in the world of film and TV about the lack of roles for women, but with audio, thankfully it seems to be different.
I’ve reviewed three drama podcasts with black actors in leading roles, and each of the shows have also been devised with innovative and immersive sound design, enhancing the listening experience.
The premise of Carrier is simple. What happens when a truck driver picks up a loaded trailer, but has no idea what’s inside? We find out exactly what, over seven intense and electrifying episodes.
Cynthia Erivo (Harriet, Bad Times at the El Royale) is exceptional in the leading role of Raylene, an African American truck driver, working on behalf of her sick father, desperate to get the job done to get home to her children. When we meet her, she is being pulled over by a state trooper. The stop throws her off schedule, and potentially out of pocket, so when the opportunity to pick up a sealed trailer from a mysterious company arises, she says yes.
The trailer comes with some very strict rules: it must be kept at a certain temperature; it must be dropped off by 5am in Chicago; and it must remain locked. As soon as she hits the road, she has second thoughts, especially when she comes to realise what she’s carrying may be alive.
A great cast of well known actors led by Erivo give life to the story, but the sound design on Carrier is something else. The sound was designed using binaural audio, a process designed to simulate how ears capture sound. Listening on headphones, this gives the impression of being in the heart of the action, with sound coming from all around you.
I loved this podcast, written by Dan Blank, and listened to the whole story in one day. A movie version is now in pre-production, again starring Cynthia Erivo. But will it capture the magic of audio? We’ll have to wait and see.
Written by Timothy X Atack (Doctor Who audio dramas), Forest 404 is an unusual podcast drama. Set in the 24th century following an incident called The Cataclysm, which mixed up and destroyed vast swathes of data about the earth and human life. Our protagonist, Pan, is a young woman given the tedious job of sorting through and deleting irrelevant sound files that survived. But she discovers a set of recordings from the rainforests of the early 21st century that haunt her. The rainforests no longer exist, but Pan hunts down the truth of how they died, all while evading pursuing agents of the new world.
As Pan, Pearl Mackie (Doctor Who) brings real pathos and heart to the character. Through her experiences, we are forced to imagine our world as one of ruins, with the beauty and soul of nature remaining as sound fragments.
Unusually for a drama podcast, each episode is accompanied by a short talk exploring the issues and themes of the show from a diverse range of speakers; and an immersive soundscape of natural world sounds pertinent to the episode, designed for a binaural 3D headphone experience. There is also a 10 minute experiment that listeners are encouraged to take part in, to discover and assess the effects that different natural sounds have on mental health and wellbeing.
Forest 404 is an ambitious undertaking, creating a futuristic world with a soundscape of current nature. It’s not something I would rush back to listen to again, but the combination of taut drama, with educational talks and sounds, presents an experience unlike any other I’ve had so far.
The Left / Right Game
Written by Jack Anderson, based on his r/nosleep subreddit series of 2017, The Left / Right Game follows idealistic and somewhat naive journalist Alice, who tries to make a name for herself by travelling with a group of paranormal explorers, obsessed with a apparently harmless pastime known as the Left/Right Game.
As Alice, Tessa Thompson (Thor Ragnarok, Westworld), is likeable and compelling, all the while playing a character that is deeply flawed and frustrating. While trying to tell the story of this mismatched group of pioneers, Alice puts herself and the group as a whole in increasing danger. The journey takes her into a supernatural world that she and the other members of the expedition cannot handle, or survive.
Her journey is being followed and documented by her close friend Tom (Aml Ameen), who has received an email with an audio file from her after a long period with no communication. As he searches for her online, and in person; a journey that takes him across the UK and to the US; he starts to question his own sanity. Why is he the only person who can remember Alice?
This is a wonderfully compelling, immersive and spooky adventure that I really enjoyed. As before, The Left / Right Game has also been designed for binaural audio, and some of the sound effects really can take you by surprise.
Amazon Studios have secured the TV rights to this intriguing show, with Tessa Thompson slated to star and produce.