These were the questions that arose, as we began the month-long research period for Border Crossings’ current theatre piece, an exploration of the indenture system in Mauritius. Previously I knew nothing about ‘The Great Experiment’, the attempt to see whether the British Empire’s economic interests could be preserved by replacing newly abolished slavery with a system of ‘free’ labour, bound by a contract called an indenture. This experiment was first trialled in the small island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, primarily to prop up sugar plantations, and saw one of the largest migrations in history - almost half a million indentured labourers, mainly from India, crossed the Kala Pani, the Black Water, to Mauritius. As a company, we set out on our own journey across unfamiliar waters – devising a piece with no pre-established characters or storyline.
What we did have, however, were delicate fragments of historical narrative, a bewildering jigsaw puzzle of facts, figures, faces and stories. Quickly the rehearsal room transformed into a kind of exhibition space, with mounds of related reading and articles on everything from Gandhi’s campaign against indenture in the early 20th century to contemporary Mauritian poet Khal Torabully’s concept of ‘the coral imaginary’ and of ‘coolitude’, reclaiming the identity and dignity of the ‘coolie’, a formerly derogatory word for the indentured labourer.
Often the absence or distortion of information was poignant and powerful – reading out the ship records of the names and ages of the migrants felt like a moving litany to ghosts of the past whose stories we could only imagine. Probably the most challenging and gaping absences were the stories of people of African origin in Mauritius – we had none, apart from the compelling story of the mixed race journalist Remy Ollier, who founded a newspaper, campaigned for the rights and political involvement of people of colour in the early nineteenth century and who was poisoned at a relatively young age.
The most powerful aspect of our rehearsal-room-come-exhibition space was the sea of faces that began to people the wall. These photographic portraits, required by indentured labourers for their identity documents, were amazingly diverse - whiskered or shaven headed, wizened or youthful, bejewelled or naked, sometimes with a story or information attached and sometimes not. We were of course examining these people and their stories, but with the watchful eyes of these extraordinarily striking portraits overlooking us, it felt there was a kind of additional duty to honour these people’s stories and their presence.
It was fascinating to see how our own lens on the world, on our own identity and on history shaped the way we saw the material. Even the seemingly static faces on the wall could change, as we looked at them with different eyes. One morning Nisha, our Mauritian actress, looked at our wall of faces and exclaimed with typical exuberant warmth ‘Look! They’re smiling!’ For me, something of a miserabilist, the faces had always seemed grave – perhaps because of the lives they’d lived or because of the enforced formality and stillness of photography at the time. But as soon as Nisha had said this, the faces changed in front of my eyes – suddenly smiles, life, liveliness seemed to be hovering at the corners of their mouths.
Our other incredible resource and one of the most unique parts of the process was the involvement of three eminent historians, creators of the academic research project ‘Becoming Coolies’, which aimed to break down some of the stereotypes of Indian indentured labourers, examining their diversity and their personal agency in migration. Initially I think we were curious and a little concerned about how an interaction between performers and historians might work, as was Professor Crispin Bates, when he declared to us over Skype: ‘My fear is that this could end up as a Mauritian Les Miserables…’ But once in the room together, there was a great generosity in the sharing process, with the performers benefitting from the historians’ extraordinary expertise and the historians delighting in the performers’ ability to bring history to life in unexpected ways.
Very quickly in the rehearsal process the issues of theatrical representation arose – as a group of 5 performers, two Mauritian, one Rwandan, one Irish and one British, what would or could we play? We began by playing roughly to ‘type’, in terms of gender or race. But it quickly became apparent that this was not only limiting, but also potentially problematic. Does a black actor playing a slave perpetuate a disempowering narrative? Does playing someone from a different race or culture represent a type of appropriation? Eventually, we decided that anyone could play anything and experimented with a range of modes of representation. Sometimes the jarring of the performer and the character threw up something interesting and sometimes the dividing line disappeared – whenever Ery played any character, something truthful and authentic shone through. For me, an amazing moment of alchemical transformation was when Tony took a photograph of an indentured labourer who had died of malaria and spoke from behind, using the face as a mask – suddenly the face became voiced, embodied, dignified.
Another wonderful resource for us was the presence of the three Mauritians in the room - David and Nisha as performers and Shiraz as visual artist. We heard the sound of the ravane, the goatskin drum and various variants of sega, traditional Mauritian music, from Bhojpuri sega to seggae (sega and reggae’s lovechild). We heard personal stories of the continuing difficulties of cross-cultural relationships, competing narratives of pride and shame in ones origins, of both togethernesses and tensions between the many Mauritian cultures. Shiraz’s video images showed the beauty of the island – an exquisite moonrise over lush green mountains – but they also whispered with ghosts of the past, as faces of those who had actually worked the land hovered superimposed over the sweeping miles of sugar plantation.
Rehearsals consisted of a series of games and exercises, but also an incredible amount of discussion of the material. Our director Michael often sat scribbling in a corner – and a mosaic of post-its emerged on which we heard (sometimes to our own surprise) the comments we had made, which were then rewoven into improvisation. One fantastic exercise had us creating an enormous map of nineteenth century global capitalism, drawn on the floor in chalk, tea leaves, sugar and loose change, showing the movement of goods and capital under empire. While the English craved sugar, the British Empire fostered the Chinese craving for opium, which contributed to the devastating famines that factored in many migrations from India. Rehearsal breaks subsequently took on a peculiar significance, as we all scuttled off to indulge our own personal cravings for caffeine, nicotine or sugar.
Unbeknown to us, our director Michael had envisioned from the start that the piece itself would slide between the contemporary rehearsal room and the historical scenes. A beautiful theatrical moment we created was the literal sliding between worlds – as we sat round the rehearsal table discussing the space allocated per person on the indenture ships, our own space became destabilised, our minds and stomachs began to lurch, our tabletop books began to slide and we slipped into the destabilising world of the ship itself, making its epic and hazardous journey across the Indian Ocean.
We had started rehearsing not long after events at Charlottesville – a powerful reminder of what can happen as a result of an attempt to redress racist historical narrative by removing a controversial statue. As the devising process continued, the echoes of the history we were examining seemed to ripple everywhere in the world around us. Halfway through the rehearsal process, the Evening Standard launched its campaign against ‘modern slavery’ in present day London. We were rehearsing in London Bridge, at the edge of the Thames, not so far from the docklands area that had sailed so many of the ill-gotten gains of Empire in and out. At one point in the process David realised that the building where we were rehearsing, in Exchange Theatre’s performance space, had a very old industrial chimney and a hook for hoisting goods – what was processed there? Could it have been sugar? A quick google revealed that a South African sugar company are currently housed in part of the building.
A stone’s throw from the rehearsal space was Becket House, one of the UK Border Agency’s immigration main reporting centres, also housing two ‘secure cells’ for those arrested while signing on or brought in by snatch squads operating from the centre. As I walked past to rehearsals in the morning, there was always a huge queue of people snaking round the block, holding paperwork and ID, waiting to sign on. It was a modern day reminder of the huge wave of arrivals at the Aapravasi Ghat, the immigration depot in the Mauritian capital of Port Louis, where the identity papers of new arrivals were processed by the supposed ‘Protector of Immigrants’.
One morning on the way to rehearsals, I saw a gardener moving in and around the immigration queue. He was wearing a T-shirt saying ‘Putting Down Roots’, which reminded me of Shiraz’s extraordinary photography of the gnarled roots of the banyan, a resourceful tree which begins life as an epiphyte, seeding itself in a crevice of a host tree or building. We kept returning to this theme of roots, to the physical and emotional relationship to the new land and the old, to the rootedness and uprootedness that comes with the experience of migration and which continues through subsequent generations, as the family tree grows and branches out.
Our ongoing rehearsal room discussions of race, privilege, identity, economic injustice and migration in the contemporary world became a kind of framing device for the historical scenes, which were often stark and simple, sometimes wordless, sometimes abstract, leaving space for the audience and for the complexity of interpretation. In the contemporary scenes we ended up playing slightly heightened versions of ourselves, exaggerating the tensions between us to create the conflicts and revelations of the piece. As a middle class white person, who has never reflected much about identity, origin, ancestry or white privilege, working on The Great Experiment was a powerful wake up call. I’ve always been very interested in history – my father was a history teacher who told us historical tales as bedtime stories and I’ve worked as a writer on history projects, including the TV series Horrible Histories. But it shocked me to discover how little I knew about British imperial history and how little consideration I had given to the links between Britain’s current wealth and Britain’s colonial exploitation. For all of us, finding our personal relationship to the material by examining our own identities was sometimes humbling or challenging, but ultimately eye-opening.
Border Crossings always creates work that crosses cultural, geographical and linguistic borders, as does Exchange Theatre, co-producer of The Great Experiment. The piece that we created felt like it also crossed the borders of the historical and the contemporary, the academic and the performative, as well as crossing some personal boundaries. It was about the possibilities and challenges of communicating across centuries, cultures, continents and worlds. In some modest way we went on a journey together as ‘jihaji-bai’, as ship-mates, in what felt like a fantastic theatrical experiment.
- Rosanna Lowe
Rosanna Lowe is an actor and writer.