Play Review: blood claat by d’bi.young anitafrika
Yesterday, I went to see d’bi.young in blood claat: a one oomaan story at the Great Canadian Theatre Company. d’bi.young wrote and performs every role in the play, which is directed by Weyni Mengesha. The play follows 15 year old Mudgu Sankofa who lives in a poor neighbourhood in Kingston, Jamaica.
All the characters in the play are portrayed by d’bi.young herself. These characters range from the precocious Mudgu, her strict grandmother, her mother in Canada, her Rasta dope-dealing boyfriend Johnny, her Jesus-praising aunt, her sexually abusive uncle, a stammering bus conducter, and the legendary Queen Nanny of the Windward Maroons! To say that d’bi.young is an amazing and brillant performer is an understatement.
The play opens with a barebreasted d’bi.young portraying Queen Nanny, the former Ashanti princess who was enslaved by the British and sent to Jamaica where she soon escaped her masters and became leader of the Windward Maroons of the Blue Mountains in the 1730s. Mudgu’s mother claims that her family is descended from Queen Nanny and therefore has a strong bloodline, strong enough to overcome any hardship.
Several images of blood interplay throughout the story, from Mudgu’s menstrual blood which stains her sheets as she sleeps, to the bloodshed resulting from gunshot wounds and machete attacks, to the blood connecting us to our ancestors, to the blood of Jesus Christ that was shed to cleanse Mankind of all sin.
I have grown up knowing that blood claat is a term of disrespect in Jamaican Patois but d’bi.young attempts to reclaim it in this piece. Mudgu’s mother explains that blood claat stands for blood cloth which is the cloth women use to absorb their menstural blood. She explains that women who practiced obeah, a Jamaican variation on the traditional religions of West Africans, would use their menstrual blood and their blood cloths in their magic in order to protect themselves or those they loved.
The play was written by d’ bi.young and is part of a planned trilogy that will follow Mudgu and her family to Canada and back to Jamaica over several decades. She writes:
blood claat is the first story in the sankofa trilogy which charts the journey of three generations of afrikan-jamaican-becoming-afrikan-canadian womben: mudgu sankofa, her daughter sekesu sankofa, and sekesu’s daughter oya sankofa. the second play benu is about a new mother’s journey through the fire of childbirth and mother-lessness. and the third word! sound! pawah! is about familial reconciliation, forgiveness, and a mythologized revolution of dubpoetry in jamaica.
It is clear that elements of the play are autobiographical. d’bi.young herself was born in Whitfield Town in Kingston, Jamaica, where the play is set. She writes:
i am a biomyth-monodramatist. biomyth-monodrama (as i pratice it) is theatrical solo-performance work, written and acted by the same person, inspired by parts of the creator’s biographical experience using poetry, music, myth, magic, monologue and dialogue (primarily with the audience) to weave the story together.
It is clear that interaction with her audience is important. During the play, characters interact with the audience, most notably when Mudgu gets on her bus at which point d’bi.young walks through the rows of seated audience members, speaking to them as if they were passengers on the bus.
d’bi.young held a ‘talk back’ session after the play which gave the audience a chance to discuss the play with her. During this discussion, d’bi.young said that she did not think about how others would receive her work while writing it. This is apparent in her incorporation of Jamaican history and culture into her play. As many non-Jamaicans are not familiar with Jamaican history, languages, and culture, there is a lot that could be lost on them. d’bi.young is right to not let this stop her exploring what she wants to explore. Although she does explain who Queen Nanny is and what the meaning of blood claat is, there are many cultural references that are not explained for the audience but those who are familiar with Jamaican history and Afrocentric motifs will immediately recognize them.
For example, Mudgu’s last name is Sankofa. Sankofa is an word of Akan origin (an ethnic group from present day Ghana). The word Sankofa relates to the concept of taking what is good from the past and using it in the present. In Afrocentric circles, this relates to the need for peoples of African descent to learn the history, cultures, and spiritual traditions of our ancestors in order to enrich our lives in the present. Also in the play, Queen Nanny often uses the word Kromanti. Kromanti is a ritual language derived from Twi (a language spoken in present day Ghana) that was used by the Maroons of the Blue Mountains and their descendants, particularly in Moore Town, during ceremonies in order to communicate with ancestors. It is still spoken by some elderly Jamaicans today.
d’bi.young is currently on a world tour with blood claat. I encourage you to see the play if it comes to a theatre near you. You can see her tour dates on her website.
Review of the play in the Ottawa XPress (2009)
Review of the play in The Financial Post (2006)