Matilda Ibini’s Muscovado, a BurntOut theatre production is set on the Fairbranch sugar plantation in 19th century Barbados where Miss Kitty struggles to keep her household together.
Performed in the front of Holy Trinity Church in Clapham Common, the place where William Wilberforce first began his abolition campaign, Muscovado centres the slaves at the heart of its story. Drawing in what was a majority white audience it forced us all to come face to face with the brutalities of slavery with little room for escape.
The atmosphere in the church was eerie, with dim lights and candles, and it was cold which was fitting for the chilling context of the play, set between the abolition of the slave trade act and the abolition of slavery. A bell marked the beginning of a two-hour story of pain still tangible generations later that had me close to tears several times. More than once we hear the lash of a whip rip through the silence, echoing as it is repeated against the backdrop of screams. The church setting and songs highlights how Christianity was not at all at odds with the cruelties of slavery but often served as a justification to its dehumanisation.
At parts Musocovado reminds me of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave in the way it addresses the sexism and racism prevailing at the time. Both film and play highlight how white women were complicit in the violence against black women, manifest in Miss Kitty’s treatment of her female slaves. The play shows the complexities of an oppression that easily switches from condescension to threats but also to compassion and banter between the different women whose relationship is marked by a stark difference in power. Both film and the play also point to the sense of entitlement to and lack of respect for the black body as a white man repeatedly comes to rape field slave Olive, and house slave Asa is prized for his capability to ensure the future of the plantation by producing many offspring.
However, Muscovado, goes beyond the narrative of servitude and offers insights into the lives of slaves and masters outside of work, told in particular through the love story of Elsie and Asa, and the friendship between Elsie and Olive. It also explores the tensions of the Fairbranch family, which is scarred by a barren Miss Kitty, rebel daughter Margaret and absent Captain.
The performances of Elsie (DK Fashola), Olive (Shanice Grant) and Nanny G (Amey St. Cyr) stand out from the very beginning when their weary faces bear expressions of pain and exhaustion that are difficult to watch. Asa (Alex Kiffin) and Elsie elicit several tears from the audience when they are forced to separate at the end of the play and Asa tells Elsie to “go to that room in your mind where your body can’t follow. Lock the door and wait for me there.”
Muscovado succeeds in telling a complex multi-layered story of pain felt by both slaves and masters whose depth this review can only scratch the surface of. It is an uncompromising portrayal of slavery in all its brutality while also offering an alternative narrative that restores the humanity slaves are often denied in modern day tellings, going beyond the realms of servitude.
Muscovado iIt is currently touring at locations around the UK.. Further information and to book tickets
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