As one might expect in a play about the life and times of Mary Prince (Amantha Edmead), born a slave in the late eighteenth century, she is subjected to horrifying treatment. Why, then, should anyone see it? There are tales of the savage beatings of fellow slaves, and having been sold off to the highest bidder several times over during the course of her life, each move heartless, though in some cases this is just as well, given the level and frequency of her suffering at the hands of slave owners. As a theatrical play, it works incredibly well, with Edmead supported by Angie Amra Anderson on set of drums, and a tour de force performance from Edmead herself, playing at least a dozen different characters as well as Prince.
An undercurrent of music and singing permeates the narrative, not only to help Prince get through long and tiring working days – and nights – but as part of her membership of the Moravian Church, which she did not join until she was an adult. To laughter from the audience, she observed she did not realise how great a ‘sinner’ she was until she joined. Much of the press night audience knew many of the hymns included in the show, which were supposedly the kind of spiritual tunes Prince would have sung in her lifetime. That she was born in 1788 and an English version of the Swedish hymn now known as ‘How Great Thou Art’ wasn’t published until 1949 is hardly the salient point: songs of this nature were (and are) inspirational to those who ascribe to Protestant Christian beliefs.
Not that the more conservative expressions of religion would have taken kindly to Prince’s predilection to dance, whether it was as a pastime or as a way of shaking off, both physically and psychologically, the various problems and hardships of her life. Edmead even pulls off a convincing performance of Daniel James, an ex-slave who bought his freedom. She married him, although the mistress of the house took to beating Prince all the more regularly as she did not want a free black man on her property. (Or, rather, her husband’s property – the Married Women’s Property Act was not passed until 1870.)
That Prince survived long enough to tell the tale was something of a burden to her. Quite understandably, a part of her wished she had gone the way of her fallen fellow slaves. To be free, she muses, is very sweet, though the show’s epilogue reveals that it’s not clear quite how ‘free’ she ended up being. There were libel cases against her and her publisher after her book, transcribed by Susanna Strickland, was published, and it is likely that had she stayed in England she would have continued to face legal challenges. That there weren’t any further court appearances after 1833 implies she either died shortly after or returned to Antigua and her husband.
The set at first glance looks like something out of Fifty Shades of Grey, with ropes and a metallic frame. The hangman’s noose, however, is the biggest giveaway that no torture that goes on here is done by prior consent. It’s a complex story, and yet this production makes it easy to follow proceedings – there is never any doubt as to which character Edmead is portraying at any given point. Anderson, for her part, never blends into the background, but becomes an indispensable part of the show, and there are some convincing moments of interaction between the pair.
An engaging combination of spoken word, music and movement come together to provide an intense and lively experience.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Inspired by the storytelling traditions of the West African griot, Sold tells the forgotten true story of Mary Prince, a woman born into the slavery in the British colony of Bermuda who went on to become an auto-biographer and champion of freedom. Her book had an electrifying effect on the abolitionist movement, helping to free many Africans in bondage. Her words of the harsh realities of enslavement and how it felt to be separated from loved ones and to be owned, bought and sold gave voice to those that are often silent, silenced, ignored or spoken for. Kuumba Nia Arts and Unlock the Chains Collective tell this forgotten story through theatre, song, live drumming and dance. The show’s first performance at Park Theatre, 18th October, coincides with National Anti-Slavery Day, in the middle of Black History Month
By Amantha Edmead
Directed by Euton Daley
Cast includes Amantha Edmead and Angie ‘Amra’ Anderson
(running 18 Oct – 6 Nov 2021)
Park Theatre, Park90, Clifton Terrace, Finsbury Park, London N4 3JP