Reviewed by Robyn Bennett
2nd October 2014
Emerging talent Matilda Ibini depicts a rarely staged British involvement in slavery, focusing on the interweaving lives of those both free and enslaved on a 19C sugar plantation in Barbados.
Muscovado is the culmination of an eighteen month collaboration between Ibini and BurntOut Theatre’s Artistic Director and Producer Clemmie Reynolds. After months of development workshops, readings and performing extracts; Muscovado is now a full-length, polished production staged poignantly as part of Black History Month 2014 at the Holy Trinity Church in Clapham, notably the home of William Wilberforce’s campaign for the abolition of the slave trade.
The story is set during a time of limbo, between the abolition of the slave trade but before the abolition of slavery, and it is clear as we move from scene to scene there is a focus not just on impending dreams of freedom, but the dreams of women in particular. Ibini pens refreshingly individual characters with stories that develop well and allow the audience to debate more than the racial context of the play, but also how this overarching religious, economic and political persecution affects what it means to be a woman.
Prior to the show, audience members are offered traditional Caribbean food and rum punch before almost processing through the church to the intimate stage setting within the chancel, dressed with palm leaves. The play centres mainly at Captain Fairbranch’s sugar plantation in St. Lucy where he lives with second wife Kitty and her step-children Margaret and Tiger. As Kitty awaits an important guest from England who may grant her the freedom to return to her homeland, we also meet some of the Captain’s house and field slaves and are told of their personal desires and dreams.
Willa, a bright-eyed house slave aged 12 is learning that the day her body becomes that of a “Lady” it brings threats of sexual violence and misogyny when all she wants is to be in the family portrait. Wise Nanny G has been a carer to the white children of St. Lucy for decades, but this does not spare her racial hatred, even from Parson Lucy. Field workers Elsie and Olive are at the mercy of white man’s sexual desires, and while Olive succumbs to flattery, Elsie faces a challenge in letting herself succumb to her own desires when wooed by house slave Asa. Alongside the struggles of those enslaved are those of Kitty and Margaret. A trembling Kitty struggles with her infertility while Margaret mourns a past tragedy; troubles that seemingly can only be resolved by Parson Lucy’s tuition.
The power of the white man in Muscavdo is interesting as man ultimately decides the fates of all characters, including Kitty and Margaret. Interestingly Ibini chooses to never show Captain, the special guest or Tiger which leaves a sense of anticipation and doubt that desires could ever be achieved. The use of offstage whipping and Willa reporting that Tiger told her she couldn’t be a buccaneer because ‘she is a girl’ serves to create a sense of control and even imprisonment for these characters. The only examples of a white male are portrayed in Parson Lucy and Unknown Fellow played by James Nunn. Both characters are the archetypal evil. I would have liked to have seen more light and shade from the Parson, to account for his cruelty to Nanny G, and understand what led him to the church; however Nunn was convincing in making the repulsive hatred a difficult watch.
Reynolds direction successfully makes use of the church setting in allowing each character to share their vulnerabilities convincingly with the audience. The stage, set in a square round using modest furniture (moved only by slaves) works alongside the clever use of pulpit and altar to create numerous settings. Key moments include the dark humour during Kitty’s arrangement of her family portrait, the pain and shame Willa faces when starting her period and the touching moment when a fading Margaret softens her hatred towards Kitty to confide how a black man she loved did not judge her for being white.
Arguably the most heart-wrenching moment in the play is the rise and fall of Elsie (DK Fashola) and Asa’s (Alex Kiffin) relationship. The characters are both written and performed with sensitivity, wit and an awareness of their situation. Elsie’s speech in the church is as moving as Asa’s protests that ‘my daughter will know hate before she knows love’, convincingly portraying such an emotional plight.
The use of sound is an extremely emotive addition to the performance. Musical Director James Reynolds excels with his original composition for Muscovado; an original mass complete with hymns influenced by the ‘Negro Spirtual’. The choir accompanies most scenes and contrasts starkly with the echoes of pained screams and sound effects of buzzing flies (also made by the choir).
This production of Muscovado is a truly visceral experience. The sweat dripping from the bodies of the actors, confessions in candlelight and sacred song combine to make this church -although a world away from Barbados- a fitting and intimate space to witness some great writing from a promising future playwright.
Muscovado is presented by BurntOut Theatre and is running until 10th October 2014 at Holy Trinity Church, Clapham Common.