The Great Privation: How to flip ten cents into a dollar

Nia Akilah Robinson
Theatre503, London

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Christie Fewry as Charity & Sydney Sainté as mother Credit: Sami Sumaria
Jack Goldbourne as John , Sydney Sainté as mother and Christie Fewry as Charity Credit: Sami Sumaria
Romeo Mika as Cuffee Credit: Sami Sumaria

America is still coming to terms with an horrific history of medical racism. As recently as 2022, Philadelphia issued an apology for unethical experiments conducted on mostly black inmates of one of its prisons.

Nia Akilah Robinson takes us back to 1832 Philadelphia when most black people in the city were no longer slaves but still subject to injustice of all kinds. Even their dead bodies were abused.

In a churchyard, a mother and her daughter Charity stand vigil by the grave of Moses Freeman, the husband of the woman only identified as mother and the father of Charity. Like many in the black community, they know the body will be stolen and used for medical dissection unless they can ward off the resurrectionists.

Mother is determined that Moses will not be stolen. She has a small business and has saved money all her life, so she does not intend to accept what others in her community have allowed to happen. However, given there is a curfew, especially for women who are black, it does risk them being arrested.

The tension grows as they wait on a bright white set with, at its centre, the raised tomb of Moses who died of cholera contracted on his recent trip to New York. Actor Sydney Sainté as the mother and Christie Fewry as Charity keep themselves awake and pass the time by talking about their lives and reading the odd clip from an old newspaper.

They are visited twice by the white man John, and once on behalf of John by a black guard who lives at the medical college. These brief, engaging, well-performed scenes have dramatic tension that carries elements of danger.

The play constantly shifts between scenes in the graveyard during several nights in 1832 and the same location in 2024, when it has become a rest area at a kids' summer camp where the same actors perform as descendants of three of the characters from 1832 who are working at the camp without initially any knowledge of its history.

Modern-day mother and Charity formerly worked in Harlem until Charity filmed herself spray painting a black clenched fist over an old sign that read “coloureds only”. Her employers defined her action as vandalism. Now they need to keep their slate clean. Alongside them works the easy-going, white John and their supervisor, Cuffee (Romeo Mika).

The intense moments of 1832, which include a highly unsettling final sight of the grave robber John, are the dramatic engine of the show. Although the playful, often amusing modern-day scenes mostly hold our attention, they are less focused and seem a long, drawn-out journey to revealing something about the events of 1832.

However, the play is important in giving witness to events that still shape an America where racism results in black males having the shortest lifespan of any group and black women are three times more likely to die in childbirth than white women.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna

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