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.