He was the first Black actor to win a leading man Oscar, and blazed a trail for diversity in Hollywood.

But Sidney Poitier's path to stardom was fraught with difficulty in an America riven by racial prejudice and Communist paranoia.

A little-known episode in the star's fledgling career has been dramatised by Ryan Calais Cameron, whose earlier play For Black Boys.. has just opened in the West End.

Retrograde at Kiln Theatre sees Poitier offered a difficult choice in 1955; buying his silence on Civil Rights in return for a lucrative contract.

Ham & High: Singer Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier were great friends Singer Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier were great friends (Image: PA)

It's a tussle for integrity and identity, but Ivanno Jeremiah, who plays Poitier, first had to wrestle with the gap between the public and private Sidney revealed in the play.

For his research, he went back to watch films like Lillies of the Field and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and says: "What a body of work! Where do you start with that legacy? But the Sidney that I had seen in movies when I was growing up, or accepting that first non white Oscar, couldn't be more different from the Sidney we see in this play.

Ham & High: Ivanno Jeremiah as Sidney Poitier and Daniel Lapaine as Mr Parks in RetrogradeIvanno Jeremiah as Sidney Poitier and Daniel Lapaine as Mr Parks in Retrograde (Image: Marc Brenner)

"I have come to name him 'The Sid,' the monolith. What Ryan has done is wound back the clock to a Sidney before the polished product, at a similar age to myself, who is living in Harlem, struggles with money, and has shot a few fims.

"It's a great opportunity to directly address how hard those people fought and how hard it is to stay in art."

Ham & High: Ivanno Jeremiah as Sidney Poitier in Retrograde at Kiln TheatreIvanno Jeremiah as Sidney Poitier in Retrograde at Kiln Theatre (Image: Marc Brenner)

Jeremiah, whose own work includes Humans, Constellations, and Lockwood & Co, says a week before Poitier was to shoot TV drama A Man is 10 Feet Tall NBC Studios asks him to fill out some paperwork.

"He's assuming contracts, but it doesn't turn out that way. It's fever pitch time, in the middle of McCarthyism, when artists, singers, peacemakers and lefties are seen as the most dangerous people in the world, there's blacklisting and red baiting. Paul Robeson and Martin Luther King are enemy number one'."

Jeremiah points out that because Sidney grew up in the Bahamas "where everyone is Black and there's a different value system" he was free of the internalised racism that held back many African-Americans.

Ham & High: Sidney Poitier in Duel at DiaboloSidney Poitier in Duel at Diabolo (Image: PA)

"The problem was that Sidney didn't see race, he pursued his talent and of course he's a threat to an insecure America, he is an individual they can't confine."

He tells a story about Poitier arriving in the US aged 15, and an alarming encounter in the segregated south.

"Cold and hungry he tried to hitchhike and cops hauled him into an alley and told him to walk back to the Black neighourhood, they said if you turn around we will shoot you."

So he headed to New York, where he worked as a dishwasher, changed his accent by listening to plummy radio presenters, and got a "pseudo education" from an older Jewish colleague who took time to hear him read.

"He was someone who understood self-invention and I hope we bridge that gap between The Sid, and the anti-Sid during the play, as we see him developing that backbone. Faced with this decision aged 28, this is the rubicon, the formation of The Sid, that horrible trade off when you are becoming an adult and establishing your boundaries."

Jeremiah, who is of Ugandan heritage, says Retrograde carries "big resonances" about diversity in the arts today.

"I know many artists who are Black, or of colour, or a bit outside of the main with gender or sexual identity, and it's just a little bit more difficult, more complicated. We only see the Oscar acceptance speeches, not the double consciousness. There is a moment in a Black man's life, or anyone who differs from a white normal person, when you realise there are many variations of yourself and you must guard all of them in some way."Ham & High: Sidney Poitier's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? will be screened at Kiln CinemaSidney Poitier's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? will be screened at Kiln Cinema (Image: Courtesy of The Kiln)

In his lifetime, Poitier was criticised for not being active enough in the Civil Rights movement, and for saying too much.

"You couldn't not speak, but if you did, you must be ready for the consequences, we have seen that in the past few years with Black Lives Matter, how much are you actually willing to sacrifice for a cause?"

The catch was, that whatever he did, Poitier endured the scrutiny of being the most visible Black actor in Hollywood.

"I went to RADA, I was the only Black guy in my year, steering a different ship to everyone else's, but I can't imagine the pressure of being The One. For all of that, representation is crucial, I would not be here today had he not suffered and done that heavy lifting."

Not that things have entirely changed; Jeremiah was once advised by an older actor at the RSC: 'Every night you step on stage it's a political act, whether or not you are political, by your very presence for a lot of people you are. What are you going to do with that?'

He believes the simple act of an audience engaging and empathising with stories opens minds and hearts.

"Like all those horrible myths in pre-war Germany about disregarding people as people, if I am on TV and something resonates about my humanity, the alienation and separation starts to dissolve."

He continues: "It's important for us to humanise Sidney, not leave him as a monolith, there is a communality in that we can all recognise that kind of difficult decision, if we empathise, it will remind audiences of the importance of individuality."

Praising the "easful poetic sophistication" of Cameron's writing, he also hopes Retrogade shows the power of saying no.

"Society can make us feel we can't say no, it's empowering for us to realise that we are much more powerful than we are led to believe."

Ham & High: Running alongside the play Retrograde Kiln Cinema will screen several Sidney Poitier classic moviesRunning alongside the play Retrograde Kiln Cinema will screen several Sidney Poitier classic movies (Image: Courtesy of Kiln Cinema)

Retrograde runs April 20-May 27 at Kiln, Kilburn. To accompany the run Kiln Cinema will screen two of Sidney Poitier's films.