Friday, September 09, 2011

Slave - A Question of Freedom

I was at Riverside Studios last night for the opening of Slave - A Question of Freedom: the play that won the first Pete Postlethwaite Award in Manchester earlier this year. It was an extraordinary night - and not just because of what was happening on stage....

The play re-tells the life story of Mende Nazar, who was born in Nuba, and was taken into slavery at the age of 12, during the Sudanese Civil War. This was 1994. She was trafficked to the UK, and finally escaped slavery in 2000. It took several more years before she was granted refugee status: apparently "slavery is not persecution" in the eyes of the Home Office.

The play is engaging enough, especially after Mende's arrival in London, although the captors are constantly portrayed as melodramatic villains (there's even some wild laughter about rape), and Mende's childhood is portrayed as a rural idyll, which seems odd given that she is now trying to raise funds for a school and supplies of clean water. The morality seemed too simple: we all know that slavery is appalling, so how on earth can it still be happening, right here, right now? The central question was left unanswered.

But none of this mattered, given that Mende herself was in the audience, and sitting quite near to me. I could hear her crying at the accounts of rape and brutality. At the end, she was brought onto the stage, to a standing ovation, and made an emotional speech of thanks to the company. And then she said: "If I can make a difference, so can all of you". Which is true. She had absolutely nothing, and now is a celebrated campaigner. So people who have something have the responsibility that goes with it.

Oh yes - the director's father collapsed just before the interval and had to be taken to hospital. Apparently he was OK - but it was another moment of emotion and spectacle...


Caroline said...

Dear Michael,

I think more than most you should appreciate that your question of "how on earth can it still be happening, right here, right now" is unanswerable. The central question was left unansered because that is the challenge to the audience; to us all. Like hundreds of NGO's working in this field and in your book 'Theatre and Slavery' you show good work on the ground offering access to basic human rights but most people have no idea.

The morality of a true story is not too simple it is simply how it is. Bearing witness to Mendes story empowers people to take action. We tell a true story, the rest is up to us and our work.
The memory of the manic laugher of the raiders is still etched in Mende's mind... there was no laughter about rape and as a fellow director you should realise that misrepresenting something in this way as you have done is not helpful to anyone. Mende's captors are portrayed accurately to her physical and mental scars and memory and the testimony of other victims whom I worked with in the development of this piece.

My aim (parallel to our Eduction work) is to present a play in the main stream arena to show that it is 'happening right here and right now' and offer the opportuntiy to debate and take action.

I applaud your theatre in development work aborad but as Prof Kevin Bales says, unelss we mobilise internationally and on the gound and put as much money into it as we do to say the arms or drug industry then it will continue. We have to pressure government and to use a cliche, mobilise 'people power'. Mr and Mrs Average have to be informed. Most people belive the myth that slavery ended 200 years ago; no, it was made illegal; it survives in secret and outside any laws of the UN and human rights. We all have to break the silence in what ever way we can and if this means shocking people, then so be it. Most people have no concept of the scale of modern slavery and if bearing witness through Mende's story can help remove blinkers from eyes and help campaign then we are doing a good job. We have to work together to effect change; in the capitals theatres, in universities, schools and community groups to keep it at the top of the political agenda.

We are working with Aidan McQuade at Anti Slavery International, presented in the House of Lords, working with the Int Slavery Museum in Liverpool and presneting at the Conference of Human Rights Museums.

Why dont you come to our discussion on Sunday 18th Sept after the matinee. We have Baroness Caroline Cox, Mukesh Kapila CBE (former UN co-ordinator in Sudan), Helen Bamber, ASI, Natasha Walter and WAST speaking. You may have more questions than answers as we all do; at least join the debate.

I sense from the tone of your blog you were a little complacent of our efforts. It is an extraordianry concept, imcomprehensible to most, that slavery still exists and it needs extraordinary efforts to help eradicate it. My father's collapse was not 'spectacle' and I am sad that you thought to mention it where most other bloggers or reviewers wrote a more studied comment on the play.

When I began work on this piece I wrote to you to see if we had mutual collaborative ideas. An ex student of mine Roe Lane spoke highly of you as she had worked with you. You declined to answer but I hope that you will this time.
Imagine if in our lifetime we could help eradicate slavery? Imagine if you and I could work together; that would be a start.
You should also speak to Damien Lewis (journalist and co-author of Mende's book Slave) he has borned witness more than most.
Best wishes
Caroline Clegg, Director, Feelgood Theatre Productions.

Michael Walling said...

Dear Caroline

Great that you've responded - this is what blogs are for. And intelligent debate is what theatre is for - a category in which I would most definitely include your work. It certainly wasn't my intention to be-little the production by mentioning your father's collapse: I was simply describing what was a very emotional evening in many ways, and it was undeniable that this was a part of it. I do hope he's OK.

You can also be assured that I would have responded to any contact I received from you about your project, and I can only surmise that your letter or email didn't get to me. Anyway - I'm responding now.

I do truly applaud your telling of Mende's story, and as you know Border Crossings has also engaged with the issue of slavery. It is appalling and everything that can be done to stamp it out must be done. It seems to me that the role of theatre in this is partly to raise awareness, but that it can also be to ask the really difficult questions, and that means dealing with people who enslave and exploit as well as the slaves themselves. My only doubt about the play (which I think I was clear I admired very much) was that these characters were not explored or contextualised, but were clearly "evil". I don't believe that people are evil, although things they do may be. I want to know why they do it. What economic and cultural structures determine such behaviour. Because that's what we've got to tackle if we're going to move forward.

I can't make it tomorrow, I'm afraid - but I'd be more than happy to meet you and talk about these important issues and the passions we share.