A Kuumba Nia Arts and Unlock the Chains Collective co-production
‘To be free is very sweet’Mary Prince in Sold
For some, going to the theatre is a form of escapism. A chance to enter a world dissimilar to the one that you came from. An opportunity to experience something extraordinary that you wouldn’t normally in your everyday life. For me, Sold was exactly that.
Sold is the retelling of the enslavement and escape of Mary Prince, the first Black woman to have a book recounting her life as a slave, published in the UK and the first Black woman to present an anti-slavery petition to Parliament.
Prior to watching this play, I had no knowledge of who Mary Prince was or the significant contribution that she made towards the abolishment of slavery in the UK. Unless I had conducted my own independent research, looking back on my education and media consumption, I wouldn’t have been made privy to Mary’s story, or stories alike in any instance.
Sold actively combats the systematic erasure of the British slave trade in British history. It provides a foundation on which audiences can begin to look beyond decontextualized statistics and look into who these slaves were. The definition of escapism refers to the seeking of relief from unpleasant realities. Yet, I would like to argue, that the current and consistent lack of open access and direct address of historical facts – such as those presented in Sold – is indeed, an unpleasant reality. Sold is a form of escapism; I was introduced into a space where my history was given the platform it deserved.
Amantha Edmead, as Mary Prince and many others, takes us on the journey of a woman, whose spirit and motivation to see herself beyond her circumstances, led to her escape and her activism for the rights of the enslaved. Edmead’s performance was phenomenal. Her ability to seamlessly speak in multiple regional, British accents, accents from the Caribbean and even the sound of a crying baby, was something that I didn’t expect and couldn’t fault. Not only was Edmead multi-rolling, but she was switching between the past and present, changing the pitch and tone of her voice to match the age of a younger or older Mary Prince. What makes Edmead’s performance stand out for me, I didn’t lose myself in the plot or in between characters as she shifted from the past and present, from character to character. Her energy was consistent, passionate and engaging, which is something I admired greatly. Yes, as a performer, your job is to captivate the audience. Yet, to carry Mary Prince’s story on your shoulders, along with the emotion and trauma embedded within it, it couldn’t have been an easy process. Especially when the consequences of slavery are still prevalent today.
Music and movement was also a key element in the retelling of Mary Prince’s story. In my mind, these moments of song and dance, amplified by Angie Amra Anderson’s drumming, related to Mary’s spirituality and innate motivation to not give up. To be able to convey a range of emotions – anguish, happiness, fear, despair and more – physically and as a solo performer is highly commendable and is something Edmead appeared to do with naturalistic ease. In spite of illness, abuse and hard labour, Mary persevered and the moments when we saw a joyful or hopeful Mary was humanising. Mary Prince wasn’t just a faceless slave, one of many, she felt joy, she felt happiness, she had a soul. Anderson’s drumming also accented a lot of Mary’s dialogue and movement, emphasising the severity of the violence and abuse inflicted on her, without having to physically inflict it. As a result, you, the audience, are put in the position of the slave owner, which is a powerful statement to make and an uncomfortable position to be in, but one that exposes the brutality that occurred and rightfully so.
The lighting design complemented Edmead and Anderson’s performance with both subtlety and definition. It reaffirmed the mood at every moment of the piece, creating a passage through which the audience could access Mary Prince’s journey on a deeper, meaningful level, without overpowering the artists on stage. The set, as with the lighting, was minimal yet effective. Anderson and her drum were well established, centre stage in a fixture held by wood and rope. A indication of the time period, a reference to the bondage of slavery and a potential metaphor for Mary’s enduring and unmoving spirituality, rooted in ancient African culture. Anderson and the place in which she resided on stage, was a constant reminder that we, as a Black community, are all connected through our ancestral roots, despite our differing African or Caribbean heritage.
Mary Prince’s story is unique and powerful in its own right, but it is also representative of what the reality was for many slaves. Sold forces you to see the individual, to see the son, the sister, the uncle, the human. Sold asks you to see each victim of slavery as an individual with a face, a history, a mind and a heart. Each life existed and has the right to be thought of and remembered as such.
I’d like to thank Kuumba Nia Arts and the Unlock the Chains Collective for bringing Sold to the Vaults Festival and Mary Prince’s life into my understanding of the history of my ancestors.