Mary Prince's journey to overcome the brutality of enslavement through her indomitable spirit.
Cornerstone Arts Centre, OX11 7NE, Tuesday 8th October 2019

An adaptation of the autobiography of Mary Prince, born into slavery in Bermuda, SOLD dramatises the first published account of female enslavement in the British West Indies. Produced as part of Cornerstone's celebration of Black History Month, if you enjoy SOLD, you can also see the work of the celebrated local theatre-makers Amantha Edmead and Euton Daley in Belonging.

June 7, 2019
'Very sweet it is to be free'

North Wall Arts Centre, Thursday 6th June 2019

Kuumba Nia Arts and the Unlock the Chains Collective have come together to produce SOLD, a masterful adaptation of the autobiography of Mary Prince, who was the first black woman ever to have her autobiography published and instrumental in the abolitionist movement. A pair of awesomely talented performers combine with clever direction and inspired creative decisions to produce a piece of theatre at its powerful best.

Before going any further I should mention that this is a tricky review for me to write: as a reviewer, my job is to say how shows make me feel, yet as a white woman learning the story of an enslaved woman whose voice, narrative and experience have been criminally played down by history, I am keenly aware that how I feel in this context is not as important as the telling of the story itself. That said, this is a story that everyone should learn about, and though the subject matter is inherently one that would rightly make white people feel guilt and shame about the legacy of slavery, the overall aim of the show is to educate, which in itself is a positive thing. As the realistic portraits of brutality that are deftly brought to life here emphasize, we can never make up for the vast scale of wrongdoing that was perpetrated against our fellow humans, but by amplifying the voices of those who were wronged we can hope to move towards weeding out prejudice and hate from the structures of society.

What makes this piece such a fantastic achievement is that not only does it spark these important reflections and discussions, as was evident from the Q and A at the end which almost the entire audience stayed for, but it does so in a way that is captivating, entertaining and inspiring. At the centre of this is a duo of talented performers. Lead Amantha Edmead pulls off the breathtaking feat of accurately portraying the several diverse and distinct individuals that Mary encounters during the many painful and shocking moments that make up her life in enslavement. She makes us laugh with her uncanny impression of a wailing baby, smile with her tuneful and powerful singing voice, and wince with every blow and lash she so cruelly receives from a series of heartless masters. Edmead is ably supported by Angie Amra Anderson whose drumming is perfectly pitched to enhance the impact of each scene, and together their harmonies produce an amazing a capella sound that creates a rich landscape. This was not the first time I have witnessed the North Wall’s stage hosting a fully-fledged production evoking a whole cast of characters with just two actors, but it may just have been the best.

The compelling show also had a number of unusual features which are a testament to the inspired vision of director Euton Daley. As an adaptation of an autobiography, it was interesting that much of the speech was formed of Mary’s narration, and though she switched between characters, Edmead never had dialogue: rather, the second half of each conversation or interaction was almost always implied. The props and set were fairly sparse but employed to maximum effect, while the lighting design was striking in its ability not just to reflect the tone of each scene, but often to shape it, producing some highly memorable and impactful freeze-frames. Similarly, Lati Saka’s choreography made the most of Edmead’s abilities to move evocatively, adding another emotional dimension to her responses.

This is a show where each member of the production is deeply invested and engaged with the real-life story they are telling, which makes it a richer, if sometimes more challenging, experience than many fictional plays. Not to be missed: it is showing at the North Wall for two more nights and then will be heading up to the Edinburgh Fringe this summer so there are plenty of opportunities.

The organiser says:

Oxford-based company Kuumba Nia Arts presents SOLD, an historical piece of theatre that dramatises the first account of female enslavement in the British West Indies. This is a preview to a run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

We think of slavery as an American experience, often hearing stories of the Deep South, and forget that Britain played a major role. SOLD uses the words and experiences of Mary Prince, who was born into slavery in the British West Indies and worked tirelessly there, before being taken in her last years to the UK. Her story, originally published by the anti-slavery movement of the 1800s, was popular in its day, contributing enormously to the ending of slavery, but has long been forgotten and is rarely referenced or known.

Amantha Edmead, who wrote the show and plays Mary says:

“Mary's story is one of the unassuming heroine. Her strength and resilience to stay alive through the horrors of British chattel slavery, to fall in love, work for her freedom and share her story to help bring slavery to an end, was a huge achievement for an enslaved West Indian woman in 1831. I feel humbled to tell her story.”

Mary's narrative describes some of the harsh realities of enslavement, from her childhood days as a passive survivor, and later when trying to gain her freedom and change the system that kept her enslaved.

Amantha was inspired to create the piece after being encouraged to audition for a part in a production about slavery where none of the enslaved characters spoke about their experiences – the action and voices coming from the European characters and their perspectives. She was compelled to show the historic truth using the real and published words of Mary Prince, an actual victim of the British Slave Trade.

The production is given greater cultural weight through the use of West African traditions including griot, an important role in the African community, similar to the European bard. The griot is an historian, storyteller, singer, poet and musician. In SOLD, Amantha tells Mary’s story through storytelling, song and dance/movement alongside the drummer and performer Angie Amra Anderson.

SOLD was first performed as a one-woman work-in-progress at the Offbeat Festival in 2018 to much acclaim. Funding from Arts Council England has enabled Kuumba Nia Arts to develop the show further ready for a run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It is co-produced by Kuumba Nia Arts and Unlock the Chains Collective with Oxford Playhouse.
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