One of these days an actual Colombian might stand before an audience in a single performer show and talk about something other than cocaine. Miguel Hernando Torres Umba plays himself, or at least a character with the same name. He actually is originally from Colombia, though is quick to point out that he’s never taken the white stuff before himself. (And why would he? I live in Wimbledon and have little interest in tennis.)
A warm and engaging manner makes almost any audience more receptive, and when some cocaine is produced on stage in a customary small soft plastic packet, Miguel (as he calls himself) wants to know if he should inhale. Some in the audience thought he should, and were even willing to dispense advice on how precisely he ought to go about it. An audible ‘woah’ went up from someone in the row behind mine as the entire contents were carelessly tipped on an on-stage table. For my part, it’s his show, and he can do as he pleases. Let’s just say I’ve seen enough shows to know that if a character is intent on taking drugs, they don’t take an audience vote on the matter.
Whether he does or he doesn’t isn’t the main thing, in the end, as the show goes into detail about how cocaine is made in the first place, before exploring its prevalence and the damage it causes, not only to its users (that much we already know about) but to a considerable number of people in Colombia and neighbouring countries who themselves have nothing to do with the drug trade but get caught in the relentless crossfire between warring factions.
Will Herman, listed in the programme as ‘production manager’, takes some stick from Miguel, who raises an objection here and there as to whether something should be included after all in the show – the audience’s expectations are lowered as Miguel points out that what is about to transpire might not make good theatre. The scene following then proves to be rather good, leaving the audience impressed. But the show is an intelligent one and doesn’t use that, or any other device, too often.
Some excellent use of projections and music add a lot to the narrative, supplementing a script that uses a broad range of scenarios to take the audience on a compelling journey. In many ways, it proved very educational – I hadn’t appreciated, for instance, that Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) had used cocaine to treat his own depression, and at one point in the illustrious history of Harrods, it sold cocaine over the counter. More facts and figures are presented through a gameshow, (called Plata O Plomo, or ‘silver or lead’, or, as per the Urban Dictionary, ‘accept a bribe or be assassinated’). Gameshows have been done so many times before in shows but it works effectively here, mostly thanks to Miguel’s palpable energy, and – to a lesser extent, but it helps – videos and graphics that work as they should.
But it is not all frivolity and joy. A story by Siomara Giraldo, a fellow Colombian, is read out, a personal and autobiographical account of her own experiences with those in the drug trade who killed a close relative just because (if I recall correctly) the said relative knew someone who knew someone. In the final scenes, Miguel gets justifiably angry, not only because he is still subjected to abuse from those who assume all Colombians are drug users and/or dealers. Although the show is quite brilliant in not being preachy and not having a definitive roadmap to dealing with the cocaine industry once and for all, Miguel is “p*ssed off” that he doesn’t have any solutions that could at least be attempted. One would have to have a heart of stone not to have noted his sheer frustration.
I didn’t enjoy all of it, but then not all of it was meant to be enjoyed. This vibrant and intense production is gloriously fascinating from start to finish.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Selling out its original run at Southwark Playhouse for CASA Festival 2017, Stardust shines an unflinching light on Colombia’s heart of darkness. Mixing together new writing by Immersive Ensemble founder Daniel Dingsdale, physical theatre and hand-drawn animation, Blackboard Theatre have a created an irreverent and impassioned investigation into the human cost that cocaine production and consumption has both in Latin America and further afield.
Provoked into action by the painful stigma left by the narco history of his country, Colombian artist and Blackboard founder, Miguel Hernando Torres Umba, unravels his own and the western world’s responsibility for a trade that kills thousands in his homeland. Bringing together contrasting stories from a range of Colombian voices Blackboard tells the story of the chain of lives and deaths that turns a coca leaf, sacred to indigenous communities in Latin America, into a line of coke on a mirror in the western world.
Piece by Miguel Hernando Torres Umba and The Company
Performed by Miguel Hernando Torres Umba
Written by Daniel Dingsdale
Associate Director: Alexander Ferris
Set Design: Luke Harcourt
Animation: Diana Garcia
Lighting Design: Alex Marshall
Sound Design: Luis Bonilla
Costume Design: Allison Ozeray
Video Graphics: Sofi Lee Henson
Set Assistant: Lauren Dix
Projection Programming: Louise Rhoades-Brown
Movement Consultants: Matthew Cole and Vanessa Guevara
Producer: Matthew Schmolle
Production Consultant: Angelica Quintero
Production Manager: Will Herman
Graphic Design: Eoin Norton
Promotional Video: Cottia Thorowgood
Promo Character ‘Charlie’: Sam Blythe
21 — 25 Feb 2018