MUSCAVADO, BURNT OUT THEATRE,
REVIEW PIECE BY DENA KIRPALANI
“Keep your dirty hands out of my sugar!”
So screams Kitty, the mistress of a plantation in 19th century Babardos where Muscovado is set, at her teenage house slave Willa after catching her in the of eating the all-precious white powder. The irony that the sugar Willa is accused of stealing has been acquired purely through stolen land, labour and lives is wholly lost on Kitty. This moment aptly sums up the travesty that constituted the plantation system: one in which slaves toiled across countless fields to harvest sugar cane from land stolen by an Empire.
In a small, cosy room above a pub, the audience is greeted by beautiful, haunting choral music which fills the space and transports us to the early 1800s. Matilda Ibini crafts the play beautifully: as each of the characters takes shape they also take on a wider symbolism, representing layers of oppression. Ibini manages this without the characters losing their core humanity and individual personality: a difficult task well executed.
The characters are driven by the ever-unseen “Captain”, the owner of the plantation, who acts as the hidden hand of patriarchal, racial, commercial, filial and religious exploitation, forcing each of the characters to react to his uncompromising spirit. The racism and sexism that was freely asserted at the time is given a voice by the plantation’s resident pastor, Parson Lucy, a self-aggrandising man who is angling for a loftier position on the plantation other than that of a mere pastor. He hates his situation and seeks to raise himself up by pushing those around him down.
Despite being a period piece, the themes of the play resonate through to the present day. The play explores how human compassion and empathy are central to breaking down barriers of race, class and gender and also how selfish desire, social constraint and constructions of the “other” continue to keep us from equality, progress and individual happiness. The fundamental injustice and absurdity of the constructs of biological determinism are made plain without any of the characters ever pontificating. Unlike so many Hollywood films on slavery, there is (thankfully) no hint of the absurd idea that oppression, in its myriad forms, is all somehow in the past to be packaged away.
For those of us following the current debate on the Modern Slavery Bill, it is obvious that we have yet to overcome the legacy of slavery or the inequalities that perpetuate the practice. Ibini’s play brings to the fore the economic drivers that perpetuated the slave trade. Building an empire on the backs of exploited labour that made some elites incredibly wealthy, the modern slave trade continues to reap huge rewards for those involved in the exploitation of other people – with some reports estimating worldwide profits amounting to $44 billion. The violence and exploitation set out in Ibini’s play has not disappeared from our modern lives; its presence is just slightly more obscured.
In Muscavado, a brave and uncompromising writer has fashioned a well researched piece of dramatic art not only founded on thoughtful and deliberate characterisation and plot, but which highlights the historical injustices that have so often been swept under the carpet. In so doing, she succeeds in bringing to the fore the human dynamics that perpetuate this dark corner of humanity.