An unflinchingly big topic for an unfeasibly small stage, it’s hard to do BurntOut Theatre’s Muscovado the justice it deserves in a short review.
Playwright Matilda Ibini transports us to the sugar-cane plantations of Barbados during the dying throes of slavery, with the Slavery Abolition Act about to be passed. Plantation owners Miss Kitty (Clemmie Reynolds) and her husband, the threatening Captain, are struggling to keep control over their slaves in the face of a rapidly changing social landscape.
We meet Elsie (Damilola K. Fashola), a land slave working in the fields who falls in love with Asa (Alex Kiffin), house slave and illegitimate son of the Captain; and Willa (Sophia Mackay), a 12-year-old slave girl who is yet to understand her hopeless position. Starting with humour and set to a brilliant live score of creole vocal music, Muscovado, as its name implies, slowly reveals the coarse, harsh and unrefined realities under the each character’s sweet exterior.
Innocent Willa slowly and brutally becomes a victim of her circumstance at the hands of Miss Kitty and the unseen Captain, and we slowly learn the ways in which each character – master and slave alike – is trapped and subordinated, longing for escape from lives over which they have no control.
There is a shocking undercurrent of sexual abuse through the performance but, further than that, the play highlights the abuse and exploitation inflicted by those who lack purpose and can see no way out of the futility of their own existence.
Parson Lucy (Adam Morris), a sinister Christian minister with dangerously immovable prejudices, serves as the only person who can speak to God, and also to the absent and all-powerful Captain – using the words of both in order to control both Miss Kitty and her staff of slaves. It is through their fear and ignorance, and his blind belief in white male superiority, that he is able to exact such control.
The play uses the awful realities of the Caribbean slave trade to highlight the rape, exploitation and humiliation of other human beings – but also sharply pinpoints the risk of this cruelty being repeated in another form. We may think times have changed, but if people have unquestioning belief in a higher power that places them above another human being, or if they feel they have no control over their own lives, they will take their perceived injustices out on one another.
Each character dreams of being somewhere else, of achieving more, whether that be freedom or a purpose. The play highlights the ways in which desperation and envy can make both victims and attackers of us all. There are an incredible number of layers to the play, and as many comments on the human condition.
Go and watch it, and take a while to think about it afterward. So much is covered in this brilliantly acted performance – and covered thoughtfully, bravely, at times painfully, and without individual agenda. That’s a mean feat for a short play of just six performers.
Muscovado will make you realise that, much further than the colour of someone’s skin, we must confront and question why people feel the need to exert power over others.
Muscovado continues at the Alma Tavern Theatre until Saturday, April 18. For more info and to book tickets, visit www.almataverntheatre.co.uk/theatre/what-s-on.html