Some books, films and plays hit a special nerve and stay with you, challenging memories, beliefs, ideas. They can even change your mindset and even behaviour. One such play, Sold, had its final showing in the Diss Corn Hall at the end of April.
Sold is the story of Mary Prince, born into enslavement in Bermuda in 1785. She was sold five times. When she eventually arrived in England as a servant in 1828 slavery was no longer supported by the British legal system, though it was still permitted in the colonies. Mary, technically free while she was in England, could only return to her husband and family in Antigua as a slave, so she stayed in England. She became an abolitionist and writer, the first black woman to publish the story of her experience as a slave. Mary’s request to return to Antigua but only as a free woman contributed to the eventual abolition of slavery.
The play is based on Mary Prince’s book and uses her words to tell her story. There is power and honesty in the words, the movements, the sounds that confront the senses and demand attention to the story and brutality. There are only two performers on stage: the lead character, Mary Prince, and the percussionist. Mary was initially performed by the play’s author, Amantha Edmead, who won the 2022 OFFIES award for the best lead performance. Four years later, when it came to Diss, Lola May was playing the lead and Angie Amra Anderson played the drum to an enraptured audience.
The performance was followed by a Q and A session. Later, I interviewed the lead actor, Lola May.
Interview with Lola May
EK: What brought you and the play to Diss?
LM: The tour was organised by House theatre network. Diss was our only venue in Norfolk. I’d only ever been to Norfolk on my way to a music festival, so I had no idea what to expect. But I loved the Corn Hall theatre. I found it a very inviting space, and we had a very good turnout. The audience was really receptive and very engaged in the Question and Answer session at the end.
EK: Is the Q and A a standard part of each performance?
LM: Yes, and it gives the play a uniqueness, I think. And it follows from the philosophy of the author, who is part of Kuumba Nia Arts, and the play’s director, Euton Daley of Unlock the Chains Collective, who want to share and celebrate Caribbean heritage and culture. And of course, there is also an element of education involved. When I took on the part of Mary Prince, I did a lot of research to learn about her, and about slavery and colonialism. In the Q and A, there’s an opportunity for the audience to learn more, to ask questions and engage with a topic that is not personalised or discussed enough.
EK: I found it very moving, and was surprised by the audience’s enthusiasm for the interaction. There were good candid questions and responses.
LM: Yes, it’s sometimes difficult to talk about these things and people are afraid of saying the wrong thing. But the message I got was that we are all in this together; we need to educate ourselves and one another and learn to be kind to one another. In this kind of exchange, we discover how trauma passing down through generations affects us, influences our behaviour and beliefs. People get defensive or judgemental and absorb prejudices which are difficult to throw off. I think these kinds of interactions are good for the soul and make life happier.
EK: In the Q and A, you talked about your own links to slavery and colonialism. Can you say a bit about that?
LM: Nearly half of the 12m enslaved Africans brought to the New World were taken to Brazil between 1540 and 1860. I believe that my family were part of the 166,000 Africans taken from the Bight of Benin to Bahia in Brazil at the beginning of 1800. They were from western Nigeria and maintained their Yoruba roots. After 1830, many Africans were emancipated and started to return to West Africa. I’m not sure when my great grandmother came to Nigeria but it was before independence (1960) and her surname was then Da Silva. She married a Nigerian and then took a Yoruba surname.
My parents rarely spoke about their past. I learned a lot more, especially about Bahia, when I started doing research about Mary Prince. I knew about my great grandmother because she looked after my mother until she was ten; then my mother joined her parents in Britain. My paternal grandmother taught me a few proverbs and such; my mother, however, was very anglicised and so I didn’t learn much about my culture until I got older.
EK: Is it common among second generation Nigerians living in the UK to be alienated from their culture?
LM: It’s complicated. Religion and colonialism have muddled things. My family are quite religious and there are things they prefer not to question. Christianity has replaced the need to claim our African heritage. Our aspirations are now more UK or US focused and we prefer to be more Western in our thinking and demeanour. But being alienated from our heritage sort of deprives us of a sense of pride and that undermines confidence and any sense of being entitled to equality. Since becoming an artist, I’ve begun to question things. I’ve tried to draw my parents’ attention to inequalities and racism and they find that annoying, but with little success. Maybe it’s a generational thing. But I do think it makes the issue of racism more difficult to fight. This is why I believe that the style of theatre in Sold is so effective. We are able to speak directly to our audience through music, song and dance, and storytelling.
Feel the energy
Watch a bit of the play here and feel the energy and power of the drum, the story and your outrage. And then listen to the performers explain the meaning behind the performance.
At the end of the Corn Hall performance, the audience was able to interact with the Lola and Angie, ask questions about the play and how slavery and colonialism have impacted their lives. What a privilege.