In 1964 the writer LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka wrote and performed a powerful one act play to reflect the struggles of life for black people at that time. Fifty Two years later and The Slave is receiving its European premiere as part of Black History Month at the Tristan Bates Theatre.
The play starts with Walker Vessels (Stanley J Browne) sitting puffing on a pipe as the audience arrive and take their seats. As the lights go down, Walker addresses us in, what I have to say, is one of the most beautiful and lyrical monologues I have heard outside of Shakespeare. Without giving any of the content away, Stanley’s voice and personality had me totally transfixed as he performed the powerful opening. At the end of the monologue, Walker goes and sits down and then, over the sounds of fighting outside, Grace (Samantha Coughlan) and her husband Bradford Easley (Stephen MacNeice) come into their house. They are both wearing army style metal helmets and panting slightly as if they have been running. As they get a drink, Walker stands and confronts them. It emerges that he was once married to Grace and studied under Professor Bradford before becoming, what we would call today, radicalised and starting a war against white people. Walker has come because he wants to take his children back from Grace and her husband and have them with him as he continues with his struggle against the oppressor.
My first observation of The Slave is that it is not an easy play to watch. There is violence, bad language, homophobia and totally un-PC language throughout. However, it is an interesting piece and, as I’m sure you guessed, I absolutely loved the opening monologue which was a splendidly written piece. Unfortunately, the rest of the dialogue wasn’t to my mind as good. Even though it is only a one act play, there were times during some of the scenes between three characters which seemed to drag slightly with a lot of what I felt was superfluous repetition.
However, once you get past that and look at the characters, then things take on a completely different aspect. Walker is such an interesting character and Stanley brings him to life superbly. Although theoretically the villain of a piece where everyone was a villain in some ways, I warmed to Walker and wanted to know so much more about him and how he got to the point he was at when the play started. Walker was obviously a troubled character. A conflicted revolutionary who would have been happier sitting having a philosophical discussion with his hostages rather than throwing Molotov cocktails with his followers – for who he seemed to have quite a lot of contempt. Unfortunately, he was trapped in a world of his own making and has to find a way to deal with his internal conflicts.
Similarly, Samantha Coughlan’s Grace was another fascinating character. Initially, she looked and sounded like a sort of Stepford Wife, but beyond the pretty dress and gloves (nice work by Designer Sophie Thomas) there was a woman with a backbone of steel more than capable of holding her own against Walker and his tirades. Samantha’s acting was first class throughout and – no spoilers – her reaction to Walker’s plans was just fantastic to see. The Character of Bradford was, I feel, less defined in the writing. Although as a way of demonstrating the hypocrisy that is sometimes present in the liberal elite with their ideas of equality and fairness for all – as long as it doesn’t directly affect them – and Stephen MacNeice played him to the hilt.
Rachel Heyburn’s direction was fast paced with a lot happening in a fairly tight space, but I think some pruning could have been done to the script to make it less verbose and keep the story moving at a faster pace.
The Slave is an interesting piece because, while it is awful to have to admit, many of the problems that Walker and the others raise are still present fifty two years after it was written. It is shameful that in this day and age there is still a need for campaigns such as #BlackLivesMatter but as long as there are then this powerful and thought-provoking play will continue to be as relevant and shocking as it was when it first hit the stage a generation ago.
Review by Terry Eastham
‘Whatever the core of our lives. Whatever the deceit. We live where we are and seek nothing but ourselves.‘
A rare, intimate revival of a seminal play set in the era of the USA Civil Rights movement which explores issues that remain as relevant and important today as when it was first published.
LeRoi Jones’ play The Slave is angry, passionate and unapologetic. This European premiere by Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka) is shocking in its ideas, language, and honest anger. First published and performed in 1964, this one-act play is an examination of the tension between black and white people in contemporary America, starting when African-American Walker Vessels visits the home of Grace, his ex-wife and her new husband Easley who are both white.
From the Slave Trade to the Civil Rights Movement and into the modern day with the Black Lives Matter campaign and our continuing concern over citizenship, identity and cultural belonging, Baraka’s The Slave is as relevant today as when it was first written.
Walker Vessels Stanley J Browne
Grace Samantha Coughlan
Bradford Easley Stephen MacNeice
Director Rachel Heyburn (Pussy Riot, Banksy’s Dismaland)
Designer Sophie Thomas (Royal Shakespeare Company)
Lighting Designer Tim Boyd (National Theatre, Peter Brook’s The Mahabharata)
Music Production Anthony Kosky
Assistant Director Robert Awosusi
by LeRoi Jones / Amiri Baraka
11-29 October 2016