In the motion picture 12 Years a Slave, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) regularly rapes and abuses his slaves. But what happens before slaves are transported across the seas from Africa to the Americas? Quite a lot, as A Cape Coast Story reveals in a multifaceted story that proves both intriguing and fascinating. The Cape Coast Castle, for anyone who, like me, should have paid more attention in history lessons at school, was originally built in the seventeenth century, in what is now Ghana. It later became a ‘slave castle’, and once an African went through the front doors, they were, to borrow a phrase from The Phantom of the Opera musical, past the point of no return.
Nick Murray (Martin Challinor) is the captain in charge of the castle, and although he has employed a business manager (in all but name), George (Oier Sola), he takes it upon himself to negotiate directly with Chief Nana (Obi Opara), the local tribal ruler. Not that negotiations are difficult, with such a smiling and willing figure of authority that is happy to go along with the demands for more and more able-bodied people, so long as the British Empire supplies him with cigars, foodstuffs and other miscellaneous items.
For George, however, things are not so clear-cut – he wouldn’t have liked economist Milton Friedman’s maxim, “the business of business is business”, that is, the main aim of commercial activity is to maximise profit. Being a non-Brit, George does not see things through the lens of the Empire, questioning Murray’s abuses, including those of a sexual nature, of slaves, if he (Murray) is supposed to hate them so much. Interestingly, it’s not only the African women in the play who are mistreated – Elizabeth (Emelie Hasselgren), Murray’s wife, is repeatedly side-lined and belittled, while Rachel (Zuzana Spacirova), George’s wife, who isn’t even seen on stage until late on in proceedings, pays the price for dropping a bombshell on Murray.
Mercifully, the audience is spared dramatizations of the worst excesses of what would now be considered crimes against the person. For most of the play, I didn’t mind it in the slightest if scene changes were clunky, and it was only in the closing moments that I realised quite how many scenes there are in this one-act play (a just about manageable two hours without interval). There was time enough to catch one’s breath and briefly reflect on what just happened. On more than one occasion there were audible gasps from the audience as it turned out that masters and slaves were just as capable of sleeping around, or being devious, or thoughtless (or all three) as one another.
The lack of dramatic music was an excellent example of how superfluous such music can often be, and I wish there were more productions that placed the kind of faith and trust in the strength of the script and its delivery by the cast that this one does. A convincing portrayal of the slave trade was more than dramatic enough – this isn’t theatre for the squeamish. Elsewhere, two characters, in separate scenes and for separate reasons, are bleeding: no fake blood was present, because no fake blood was needed if a scene can be acted in such a way that the audience understands exactly what is going on.
This even extends to a relative lack of staging: the whole show is set in a castle, but it doesn’t, at face value, look like one – there’s not so much as a projected still image of an ornately furnished room. The focus is instead very much on the characters and their conduct. With a cast as international as the transatlantic slave trade itself, this was a riveting and hard-hitting production.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Written and directed by Daryl Amankwah, A Cape Coast Story is a tragic story of forbidden love that steals the heart of Aku, a young slave and a Captain tasked with facilitating the transatlantic slave trade which she falls victim to. Set in the Central region of Ghana, West Africa, the play delivers a plot full of twists and betrayals that lead to a chain of unfortunate events that ripple out of control.
23rd June 2018