African Snow

Murray Watts
Riding Lights and York Theatre Royal
Hackney Empire and touring

Production photo

A snow was an eighteenth-century two-masted sailing ship. This type of vessel was often used for transporting slaves and 'The African' was such a ship - hence African Snow. Its captain was John Newton whose detailed journal is an important source for information about the slave trade. July sees the bi-centenary of his death. Late in life Newton campaigned against the slave trade along with William Wilberforce, Pitt the Younger and other politicians, and wrote a tract against it. Another prominent campaigner, who had himself been a victim of the trade, was Olaudah Equiano who became the best known black in Britain after publishing his autobiography in 1789 and lecturing and speaking up and down the country to promote abolition. This play outlines their stories.

The play is framed by Newton preparing a speech, possibly, though it was not entirely clear, as part of the abolitionists' presentation to Members of Parliament. Then, assuming the possibility that Equiano was on Newton's ship and that they also met, as is highly likely, as participants in the abolition movement, it recounts both their life stories. Those not already acquainted both with the issues and with the lives of these two protagonists will, I think, be hard pushed to follow it in detail. Leaping backwards and forward through time, from memories of Africa to the agony of the voyage, life on the plantations and in London, the writer has tried to cover a huge amount of information and the exposition is not strong on clarity, except when characters adopt a pedagogic address to the audience.

Identifying individuals is not always easy when with only one white actor in the cast, who plays Newton, all the other whites from politicians and naval officers to genteel English women and British deck hands are played by black actors, their race indicated only by accent. Equiano himself is played with an African accent which is not always comprehensible, especially when straining - and failing -- to match the scale of the Hackney auditorium. Though this may not have been a problem in smaller houses, it was especially noticeable when playing upstage or having to top loud music or sound effects, and was a problem that affected both the leading players. Otherwise both Roger Alborough as Newton and Israel Oyelumade bring considerable power to their roles but they are not helped by a rather literary script, perhaps too closely based on the characters' writings, rather than reimagining them in conversation. While Oyelumade sometimes lacks vocal strength he moves beautifully and often leads the other actors in dance elements, choreographed by Clyde Bain, that are reminders of the slaves' African culture, while Ben Okafor's music also draws on hymns written by Newton himself - including a reminder of his well-known Amazing Grace.

Both men suffered great hardship, especially in their early lives, which are shown in parallel, with the savagery of the treatment of the slaves being graphically presented. The setting, Newton's study, is overshadowed by the skeleton form of is ship's timbers, slave forms dimly seen behind their struts as though behind bars. No one wears shackles but you don't have to see them to know their presence. The dim outlines of one of those plans of the placing of slaves in the hold are glimpsed occasionally on the walls, up-lit gratings in the floor of the rostrum on which the action is played again suggest imprisonment and, when actors emerge through them, emphasise the confinement of the vessel. Sean Cavanagh's design never lets us forget the slave ship, though it does nothing to give location to any other scenes. Pain hides in its shadows. The rich fabrics of African robes and the flash of a red eighteenth-century tunic or the gold braid of a naval hat give an occasional glow of colour, all lit in a mainly amber light. Rarely does Ben Cracknell's lighting plot allow the harsh white light of day, this is a world of memory, and too often one in which there is insufficient light on actors' faces.

Equiano's memories and reminders of Africa, peopled by his distinguished and anguished parents, and his attempts to recapture them whether on the plantations or with those ex-slaves in London who formed themselves into a community they called 'The Sons of Africa' are particularly effective. They carried an emotional power that moved the audience and was probably hugely responsible for the loud approval this play won from the audience. A theatrical presentation of the subject could hardly fail to have an emotional impact but there is no real confrontation in this imagined meeting between slave and slave-trader. There is no attempt at justification or explanation - how can there be, you may ask: but, as the play itself tells us, Wilberforce failed in his first attempt to win reform in Parliament. There were strong forces and arguments against him. The voice of Olaudah's lost sister, who Newton may have tried to rape before she escaped and threw herself overboard - which is present throughout the play, and the sight of Olaudah himself, suspended by his ankles likes some early Christian martyr, have a big emotional impact but there is no attempt to really explore the characters of either slave or slaver.

Writer Murray Watts and director Paul Burbridge were, I believed, commissioned to create a play to celebrate the bicentenary of the abolition of the British slave trade by the British Parliament, not to explore the wider issues, or to unearth the truth about the protagonists (evidence has sometimes been presented to suggest that Equiano was actually born in the Caribbean not, as his claimed, in Africa). Though white man Newton's record was a well known in past histories it is only in more recent years that people have rediscovered Equiano's role in the abolitionists' fight. This play may not set out the facts about the fight for abolition very clearly but it does take its audience on Equiano's emotional journey, and that outweighs any of its failings.

Opened Theatre Royal York, 30 March 2007. Touring in June to New Theatre, Hull, Redgrave Theatre, Bristol, Corn Exchange, Brighton and Hippodrome, Tameside.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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