Thursday, October 09, 2014

Muscovado: A Disturbing, Powerful Play that Heralds an Extraordinary New Voice

A school night, in the midst of a busy week, and a very full day of teaching is almost enough to dissuade one from venturing across the river for pretty much anything. Add a blustery, rainy day, and Clapham Commons seemed even further away from my north London office. Still, I had tickets and company to nudge me along, so off I the Holy Trinity Church, that almost forgotten spiritual - and political - home of William Wilberforce who campaigned for the abolition of the slave trade.  It seems apt, in retrospect, that I went to the church - for the first time, last night - to see Muscovado, written by the startlingly talented young playwright Matilda Ibini, and produced by Burnt Out Theatre

The brand new play had an initial run of ten days as part of Black History Month, but I might as well tell you right off the bat, it should be running at a major venue, backed by Britain's theatre big-wigs, and be seen by a LOT more people.  And frankly, if British Council and other tax-payer funded organisations are listening, they should be sending this one abroad too! 

We were greeted by a cheery atmosphere at the entrance, and my first reaction was surprise, and gladness, at very racially diverse, mixed audience -  in terms of race, ethnicity, class and nationality. Sadly, theatre-going in London - despite all its diversity - can be a strangely mono-racial phenomenon and I often feel marked out as the 'odd' one in most audiences. There were other little welcoming signs: in addition to the usual glasses of wine, there was the option of a warming, lovely rum punch. And much welcome it was after my cold, exhausting day! There was also a stand from the Caribbean Cafe selling the most delicious, restorative, food; ladies, you saved my life! 

As the doors opened and we streamed into the church, we were greeted by Parson Lucy (played by James G Gunn), and other characters from the play were already dotted around, seated in pews, eerily lit by candle light, or slowly weaving their way through the shadows. It can be tricky to perform in a space that isn't a formal theatre, but the director Clemmie Reynolds used the space well, and placing the actors in the church established an early complicity and intimacy with the spectator that made the play itself much more disturbing. 

The play itself unfolds in 1808 on the Fairbranch sugar plantation in Barbados. The timing is key as a year before Wilberforce had successfully pushed through the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in British parliament. On the Fairbranch plantation however, the Act brings little change to the slaves' brutalised lives, and commercial calculations of its owners. The set was sparse yet effective, with props moved around, and the church surroundings were used fully to stage, with the audience seated in the pews in the chancel, and a few chairs spilling out into the nave. 

The plot skilfully weaves together multiple characters including the plantation owner's wife and daughter, the local parson, and various slaves. However, Muscovado keeps the owner of the plantation as an off-stage yet all-powerful, sinister presence/absence. It is a masterful choice, signalling the invisible pervasiveness of racial, gender, and class privileges that continue to this day. It is this off-stage evil 'deity' who repeatedly rapes his wife, Kitty, and in a grotesque coming-of-age ritual, is also the invisible rapist of the distraught child-slave Willa (who may/may not be his daughter).

While the most upsetting parts of the play are familiar to us from slave narratives - the whippings, humiliations, brutal violence in guise of discipline, the casual but persistent degradations and dehumanisations of quotidian plantation life - they draw power from a source that is not often seen on screen or stage. Muscovado presents the Fairbranch slaves as fully formed humans, not merely as props for a morality play; they dream, they dare to laugh and love, they find hope and strength in unexpected places, and most importantly they continue to resist by reasserting their humanity in innumerable small acts, words and thoughts of defiance and courage. The script has - perhaps unsurprisingly - been compared to Twelve Years a Slave

I would reject that comparison. I found Muscovado more humane and more powerful of the two as it finds little need to make narrative and commercial compromises. Unlike the film, the play offers no easy resolutions. But it also refuses to let historically dominant narratives push slaves to the sidelines of their own history. Instead Muscovado offers one of the few instances where non-white bodies - and even more importantly female black bodies - occupy centre stage, in all their fullness, complexity, grace, and tragedy. 

There has been a long tradition - in writing, art, and performance - of silencing and erasing the female nonwhite body from our stories, stages, screens and imaginations; Muscovado is compelling for its powerful insistence on placing the ignored, fetishized, brutalised black female (and a single male) bodies, lives, and beings at the centre of its narrative. By keeping the sexual and non-sexual violence inflicted on the black female body off-stage, it refuses to let the audience revert to the default practices of fetishization we have been taught and thus distance ourselves.  Furthermore, by similarly keeping Miss Kitty's rapes off-screen, it forces us to examine both the similarities and brutal disparities of gendered violence; and yet by performing Willa's invisible violation on-stage, the play also refuses to excise the role of race in gendered violence.

Moreover, the script fully explores the complex web of relationships, oppression and brutality of slavery and racialised oppressions. It does not shy away from messy hierarchies of gender and race: Kitty is not only fully complicit in the exploitation and brutalisation of slaves, she is also the mastermind who realises the ban on slave trade can be subverted by using her own slaves as 'breeding stock.'  Yet, she is at the same time, also a raped, desperate, isolated wife who can find few allies and fewer friends and can drunkenly order a house slave to help her kill herself.  

Muscovado also confronts the role of the church, and its clergy in upholding, maintaining, and actively promoting slavery, thus also reminding us of the ways organised religion - and religious scriptures - were, are, and can be used to justify the most inhumane and unjust practices and structures. Parson Lucy's hate filled racist rant took on particular resonance when delivered from the Holy Trinity Church's pulpit.  I couldn't help but imagine that Wilberforce himself had likely heard similar justifications of slavery and wondered yet again about how and why some (so few) of us refuse the dominant narratives of our times, and the necessity of such dissent. 

The play is both powerful and disturbing, and more so for its insistence on complexity. The dialogue is both unflinching and at times scorching. Despite a myriad range of characters, the script maintains tight control of each character's trajectory.  If there are some loose ends, such as for Olive's fate, they offer a glimmer of hope, however false, in a bleak setting. The end is shocking, upsetting and unpredictable, perhaps because the motivations of all involved are clear and familiar, but also because the multiple layers of complicity are rarely explored in narratives about slavery, or indeed contemporary race and racism. 

The actors were well suited to their part, and I walked away once again wishing there were more room for talented non-white actors on British stage. Alex Kissin as Asa, DK Fashola as Elsie and Shanice Grant as Olive brought both emotional power and physical vulnerability to their parts. It is a credit to the script, the director and the actors, that despite the brutal setting and theme, it still provoked empathic and not only discomfited laughter. 

The Holy Trinity Church made a symbolically apt setting for the play although the acoustics are not ideal. I do wish however that Muscovado would find a longer run and larger stage for itself: it is ambitious, complex, powerful, and it delivers dramatic, emotional and political punch. That it is the work of a playwright not yet twenty-three is both extraordinary, and exhilarating for the promise it holds for the future. 

Full disclosure: I know the playwright Matilda Ibini who graduated from the Creative Writing programme where I teach. However, she did not take many classes with me and I can certainly claim no hand in her growth and stature as a writer. I am however very privileged to have watched her grow as an intellect and a writer during her degree.