Choice of Straws by ER Braithwaite. London’s East End 1960. Twins Jack and Dave Bennett are a happy-go-lucky, rootless pair of Teddy boys. If they do occasionally rough-up a black guy it’s just a game to them. Until a victim in Whitechapel fights back and Dave pulls a knife. From the writer of To Sir With Love.
Mr Spencer….. Alex Lanipekun
Dramatised by Roy Williams
Director Claire Grove
About the Play
Edward Ricardo Braithwaite is best known as the author of To Sir, With Love, the 1959 novel that was adapted into the 1967 hit film To Sir, With Love, starring Sidney Poitier, and the hit song To Sir, With Love, sung by Sidney Poitier’s co-star Lulu. His lesser known novel, a Choice of Straws, was originally published in 1965.
Choice of Straws is told from the perspective of Jack, a White East Londoner, who usually follows along with his Twin Brother Dave, who, while being inadvertently stabbed while attacking and killing a Black man, ends up dying in a car crash in a car driven by another Black man, a Medical student named Bill Spencer. Jack tells the truth to his parents about what happened and tries to dodge police inquiries. He also begins to discover himself as an individual, no longer in his brother’s shadow. This involves getting a girlfriend (Ruth) and losing his virginity while pursuing a romantic relationship with Bill’s sister Michelle.
Through Jack’s relationship with Michelle, Braithwaite revisits the divisions that race and class construct in people’s lives that he explored in To Sir with Love. In To Sir, With Love, the educated and sophisticated Afro-Caribbean Teacher is a victim of racism, however his pupils are victims of classism, which has meant that they have received a completely inadequate education to prepare them for anything but work as common labourers. Jack is working-class while Michelle is middle class and has a university education. She ends up ending their relationship for fear that Jack is just using her in order to experience dating a Black girl. This has happened to her before. Even the issue of Jack and Dave attacking the Black man is complicated by the fact that late in the radio play we learn that their father was assaulted by Black men during the 1958 Notting Hill Riots.
Choice of Straws doesn’t provide any easy answers to the racial and class conflicts that still divide Britain into many small islands, but it is a great exploration of these divisions and is itself an action of walking in the “other’s” shoes.
About E. R. Braithwaite
E.R. Braithwaite was born in Guyana in 1920. He was raised in a relatively privileged Afro-Guyanese family, both his parents were graduates of Oxford University. He served in the Royal Air Force as a pilot during World War II. He attended the University of Cambridge where he earned a doctorate in Physics. Like many people of colour in Britain after World War II, despite his qualifications, he found it hard to find employment in his field so was forced to take a job as a teacher in East London. The book, To Sir, with Love, was based on these experiences. Braithwaite pursued a career in social work and ended up getting a job finding foster homes for non-White children for the London County Council. He based his second novel, Paid Servant, published in 1962.
Braithwaite’s books were banned in Apartheid-Era South Africa until 1973. At this time, Braithwaite applied for a visa to visit South Africa. His visa as granted and he was given the status of “Honorary White”, which gave him far more freedoms and privileges than the indigenous Black population. He wrote about his experiences traveling in South Africa in the memoir Honorary White, published in 1975.
Braithwaite has worked as an educational consultant and lecturer for UNESCO, as the permanent representative for Guyana to the United Nations, as the Guyanese Ambassador to Venezuela, and as Writer in Residence at Howard University. Most recently, he has been a visiting professor at Manchester Community College. He now lives in Washington, D.C.
About the Notting Hill Race Riots
The 1958 Notting Hill Race Riots raged over the August Bank Holiday in Nottingham. Although dismissed by police at the time as just hooliganism perpetrated by White and people of colour alike, In 2002, theLondon Internal Metropolitan Police released documents related to the riots which told a different story:
The Met commissioner was told that of the 108 people who were charged with offences ranging from grievous bodily harm to affray and riot and possessing offensive weapons, 72 were white and 36 were “coloured”.
It is popularly believed that the riot began on the night of Saturday August 20 when a 400-strong crowd of white men, many of them “Teds”, attacked houses occupied by West Indians. Among the victims was Majbritt Morrison, a young white Swedish bride of a Jamaican. She was pelted with stones, glass and wood, and struck in the back with an iron bar as she tried to get home.
The internal police witness statements provide graphic evidence of the motives of the mobs – at one point crowds several thousand strong roamed the streets of Notting Hill, breaking into homes and attacking any West Indian they could find.
PC Richard Bedford said he had seen a mob of 300 to 400 white people in Bramley Road shouting: “We will kill all black bastards. Why don’t you send them home?” PC Ian McQueen on the same night said he was told: “Mind your own business, coppers. Keep out of it. We will settle these niggers our way. We’ll murder the bastards.”
The fact it is believed one of the first people attacked by Whites was a White woman in a romantic relationship with a Black man just demonstrates how subversive such unions were perceived as at the time. My own mother used to be called a “Nigger Lover” and “Race Traitor” jokingly by her family members when she married my father. The level of contempt that White women who agreed to be in romantic relationships with men of colour at this time, and in some places even now, is a phenomenon which I feel has not been explored well enough in anti-racism circles’ discussions around White Privilege.
The Notting Hill Carnival, an annual street festival led mainly by Britain’s Trinidadian and Tobagonian community, began in 1959 as a community response to the Notting Hill Race Riots. The first festival was organized by Claudia Jones, a Trinidadian American Communist and journalist who had been granted asylum in Britain in the late 195os after having been imprisoned and eventually deported from the United States due to her communist activities. In 1958, she founded the West Indian Gazette, the first newspaper printed in London for the Black community. She is considered “The Mother of the Notting Hill Carnival”. Black Academic Carole Boyce Davies has written her biography, Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones. The title of the book refers to the fact that Jones, who died in 1964 due to heart disease and tuberculosis, is buried in London’s Highgate cemetary to the left of Karl Marx.
About Gugu Mbatha-Raw
Mixed Race British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw has recently gained recognition in the United States as the star of the cancelled J.J. Abrams’ TV Series Undercovers. I can’t help but suspect that Undercovers partly failed because it had two Black leads playing “non-traditional Black roles”. Of the top of my head, I can’t think of any American TV Series with Black Leads, other than comedy series, that have survived very long. Despite this, Gugu’s beauty and talent has been “discovered” and we will be seeing more of her on the American screen. Gugu was born in 1973 in Oxford, England to South African doctor Patrick Mbatha and English nurse Anne Raw, who met while working together at a hospital . Her full name, Gugulethu, means “Our Pride” in Zulu. She is a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. I first saw her in the British Sci-Fi TV Series Doctor Who, portraying Tish Jones, the sister of Doctor Who’s First Black Companion, Martha Jones. In 2009, Gugu played Ophelia opposite Jude Law in Donmar West End and Broadway Production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. We will be seeing her on the big screen soon in the comedy drama Larry Crowne starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts and in the American Supernatural Thriller “Odd Thomas“.
To Ricky with Love by Caryl Phillips (2005 Guardian article available online)
Notting Hill Race Riots
After 44 years secret papers reveal truth about five nights of violence in Notting Hill by Alan Travis (2002 Guardian article available online)
The Forgotten Race Riot (2007 BBC article available online)
Long History of Race Rioting (2001 BBC article available online)
Profile of Claudia Jones available online
Interview (2009) in The Guardian available
Interview (2009) in The Telegraph available online
Video Interview (2010) available online
Black British Literature
Black British Literature since Windrush by Onyekachi Wambu (BBC History article available online)
God’s President Mugabe of Zimbabwe is a play that was commissioned by BBC Radio 4 for its Friday Play Series to mark the 30th anniversary year of the Independence of Zimbabwe. According to the BBC Radio 4 website:
Kwame Kwei-Armah’s play tells the story of the tense negotiations around the Lancaster House Conference, and the road to Zimbabwe’s Independence.
On 4th March 1980 the Shona majority in Rhodesia was decisive in electing Robert Mugabe to head the first post-independence government as Prime Minister. Six weeks later, on April 18th, Zimbabwe celebrated its first Independence Day.
On the 21st December 1979, following three months of talks, the Lancaster House Agreement finally brought independence to Rhodesia following Ian Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965.
Margaret Thatcher’s government had invited Bishop Muzorewa and Ian Smith, and the leaders of the Patriotic Front, led by Joshua Nkomo (Zimbabwe African People’s Union/ZAPU)and Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe African National Union/ZANU) to participate in a Constitutional Conference at Lancaster House in London, to be chaired by the foreign secretary, Lord Carrington.
The purpose of the Conference was to discuss and reach agreement on the terms of an Independence Constitution, and to ensure that elections should be supervised under British authority to enable Rhodesia to proceed to legal independence and the parties to settle their differences by political means.
Each scene of the play takes place on crucial day of Zimbabwe’s history, some of these days are well-known, others are not. The play jumps back and forth in history and goes back as early as 1960 and as late as 1980, covering twenty years in the history of Zimbabwe’s independence movement. British Zimbabwean actor Lucian Msamati (best known for his role as Mr. Matekoni in HBO’s No. 1 Ladies, Detective Agency) plays Robert Mugabe.
18th November 1971, in Salisbury Prison, Rhodesia
Alex Douglas Hume, the British Foreign Secretary under Prime Minister Heath and Bishop Muzorewa of the United African National Council visit Robert Mugabe and Edgar Tekere, who have been imprisoned by Ian Smith’s government. They are there to discuss the proposed constitutional settlement. The British government wants to get Tekere and Mugabe’s opinion.
Mugabe and Tekere feel that the proposal is just British capitulation to Ian Smith’s demands. Hume argues that the mechanisms are in place to lead to majority rule eventually. Bishop Muzorewa also objects to the proposal.
17th May 1979, Office of Lord Carrington, Britain
Lord Carrington reflects on Margaret Thatcher’s speech in regards to the crisis in Rhodesia. The British are considering recolonizing Rhodesia, establishing a constitution that both sides accept, then leaving. Margaret Thatcher doesn’t want to be seen as a racist by the Commonwealth and has sent a video of her speech to Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda in order to assure him that she supports Black Majority Rule.
3rd September 1979, Havana, Non Aligned Movement Summit, Cuba
Zambian President Kaunda is meeting with Robert Mugabe and challenging him on his squabbles with Nkomo. Kaunda doesn’t want to see more of his people die because Mugabe is behaving in a reckless and criminal fashion. Kaunda threatens to shut all of the ZAPU bases in Zambia if Mugabe won’t accept to negotiate a peace at Lancaster House.
10 September 1979, Lancaster House, Britain
Lord Carrington observes that Nkomo has come separately from Mugabe and they are both staying at separate hotels and have different PR representatives although they are both members of Zimbabwe’s Patriotic Front. Bishop Murorewa arrives with Ian Smith; they are both members of the Zimbabwe-Rhodesia delegation. Edgar Tekere arrives with Robert Mugabe.
10 September 1979, Lancaster House, Opening Plenary Session, Britain
Lord Carrington presents the proposed constitution for Rhodesia with which Britain will be prepared to grant independence. Lord Carrington expresses his anger that a cease-fire has not been called during these negotiations. Mugabe accuses Bishop Muzorewa of betraying the nationalist movement for siding with Ian Smith and defending thee rights of the White Minority.
In the bathroom, Robin Renwick, who works in the Rhodesia Department of the British Foreign Service, meets Tekere and expresses his hope that, even if official talks break down, he and Tekere can keep communicating.
Renwick asks if Tekere knew Mugabe before the liberation struggle because they seem so close. Tekere says he knew Mugabe would be their leader from the first time he spoke.
20th July 1960, Highfield Township, Salisbury, Rhodesia
Robert Mugabe has participated in demonstrations against and been chased by riot police. Tekere encourages Mugabe to speak to the crowd of demonstrators. Mugabe is hesitant because he doesn’t know what to say. Tekere tells him to just talk about his experience in the demonstration. Tekere introduces Mugabe to the crowd, explaining that he has three university degrees and has just returned from Ghana. Mugabe finally speaks. He says that Ghana was the first African state to gain independence and his expresses his admiration for that country where Africans are in control of their own affairs. While in Ghana, Mugabe realized that in Rhodesia Blacks are taught to worship the White man. Mugabe encourages the people in the crowd to stand up for their rights.
Tekere tells Mugabe that he is going to introduce him to Nkomo and invites him to join the party. Tekere tells Mugabe that he would be a great spokesperson. Mugabe states that he is a teacher in Ghana but Tekere says that now Mugabe’s job is to fight for freedom in Rhodesia.
10th September 1979, Lancaster House, Britain
Bishop Muzorewa is meeting with Lord Carrington on his own. Carrington emphasizes that if there is no settlement the British will not lift sanctions against Rhodesia. Carrington tells Bishop Muzorewa that his party needs to accept that White Privilege will come to an end in Rhodesia.
10th October 1979, Lord Carrington’s Office, Britain
The land of White farmers will be protected for 10 years in the proposed constitution. Mugabe says that this war is mostly about land and is angry about idea that Blacks will have to compensate Whites for the land they stole. Lord Carrington wants Mugabe to sign off on the constitution. Carrington informs Mugabe that he will only negotiate with Bishop Muzorewa and Ian Smith because they accept the proposed constitution. He tells Mugabe and Tekere that their attendance at the conference is no longer required and that they should keep in mind that Britain will be lifting sanctions on Rhodesia so they will facing a war with an economically revitalized country.
Mugabe is fed up with trying to negotiate with Carrington and decides to go over his head.
15th October 1979, Lord Carrington’s Office, White Hall, Britain
Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Sir Sonny Ramphal, who Mugabe has contacted, confronts Lord Carrington about his decision to expel Mugabe, Tekere, and Nkomo from the conference and accuses him of treating Mugabe like a child and being too close to Bishop Muzorewa and Ian Smith. Lord Carrington states that he thinks Mugabe is an unreasonable monster. Ramphal informs Lord Carrington that there are rumors that he had a separate meeting with Bishop Muzorewa, making it clear to him that he would get Mugabe, Tekere, and Nkomo to leave the negotiating table. Bishop Muzorewa discussed this meeting in a letter which has been leaked to African newspapers.
Ramphal says he can get Mugabe back to the table. Lord Carrington accuses Ramphal of being too close to the Africans. Ramphal explains that there are things he can get Nkomo and Mugabe to agree to that Lord Carrington can’t.
15th October 1979, a Hotel in Central London, Britain
Ramphal, Mugabe and Tekere are meeting. Mugabe is furious that in the proposed constitution Blacks will have to buy land from Whites at market price. Ramphal says that he spoke with President Jimmy Carter and America will contribute to the land resettlement fund to buy the land so it will not have to come from the new Zimbabwean government’s budget.
18th October 1979, Lancaster House, Britain
Tekere and Mugabe show up with a signed copy of the constitution, much to Lord Carrington’s surprise.
Now, the transition to democracy can be discussed. Lord Carrington says that Britain will return to Rhodesia for two or three months to monitor new elections.
Mugabe flips out and demands that their be a new Chair instead of Lord Carrington. He then storms off.
Robin Renwick tries to speak with Tekere before he goes off to follow Mugabe.
25th October 1979, Lord Carrington’s Office, White Hall, Britain
Bishop Muzorewa is meeting again with Lord Carrington. Lord Carrington asks Bishop Muzorewa to stand down as Rhodesian Prime Minister during the transition period because if he stays in power it looks like he is getting an unfair advantage. As he was only elected six months earlier, Bishop Muzorewa is not happy with this proposal. Lord Carrington assures the Bishop that British intelligence says that he is sure to win the election again and that Mugabe won’t be able to get his campaign together in only a few months so Muzorewa should not worry.
7th November 1979, Lancaster House, Britain
Lord Carrington is meeting with Robin Renwick. Lord Soames will be appointed as the New Governor of Rhodesia during the transitional period, although he knows nothing about Rhodesia.
14th November 1979, Lord Carrington’s Office, White Hall, Britain
Lord Carrington is happy that Bishop Muzorewa has agreed to step down as Prime Minister of Rhodesia. He reflects on the fact that in 1974, Ian Smith released Mugabe and his comrades from prison, only because the South African government asked him to. But then these former prisoners started getting killed. It looks like they were only released so that Ian Smith could take them out.
18th November 1974, Cambazumo/a Service Station, Salisbury, Rhodesia
Edgar Tekere picks up Mugabe in a car, Bob Marley music is playing on the radio. They are heading for the mountains at the border with Mozambique where they will walk to safety. They are fleeing assassination attempts by Ian Smith’s mercenaries. They have learned that Ian Smith’s mercenaries have sneaked into Patriotic Front camps and slaughtered men, women and children.
6th December 1979, Hotel Room in Central London, Britain
President Kaunda is meeting with Mugabe. He assures him that the Patriotic Front should not fear attacks by Ian Smith’s mercenaries as there will be a Commonwealth Monitoring Group stationed in Zimbabwe to ensure that the cease-fire is maintained.
14th December 1979, Press Conference , Hotel in Central London, Britain
Mugabe holds a Press Conference criticizing the negotiations and demanding that the international community become involved in order to protect the Zimbabwean people from the Rhodesian Security Forces.
14th December 1979, Hotel Room in Central London, Britain
Lord Carrington is angry about Mugabe’s Press Conference. Mugabe demands that Patriotic Front (ZAPU and ZANU) militias be permitted to have a central assembly point in Rhodesia so they are not vulnerable to attack at the country’s borders. He will only sign the Lancaster Agreement if his is allowed.
21st December 1979, Lancaster House, Britain
Members of the Patriotic Front delegation, the Zimbabwe Rhodesia delegation and the British delegation sign the Lancaster House agreement. Despite this, Mugabe expresses that he feels wronged and cheated.
20th February 1980, Election Rally, Harare, Zimbabwe
Mugabe and Tekere return to Zimbabwe after five years in exile. Lord Soames has been threatening to kick them out of the elections but if that happens, they have declared that they will consider the forces of the Patriotic Front absolved from maintaining the Lancaster Agreement, particularly the ceasefire.
4th March 1980, Harare, Zimbabwe
Nkomo’s Part, ZAPU has won 20 seats. Bishop Muzorewa’s party has won only 3 seats. Mugabe’s ZANU has won 57 seats. Although he has won, Mugabe says that the fight has only just begun.
18th April 1980, Zimbabwe House, Harare, Zimbabwe
Bob Marley has been invited to perform for Zimbabwe’s first Independence Day. Mugabe is so excited to meet him. He explains that Patriotic Front soldiers sung Marley’s songs while they fought the resistance struggle. Marley will be performing the song he wrote in support of Zimbabwe’s freedom struggle, Zimbabwe.
Bob Marley expresses concern with what he sees going on in Harare. He says that he doesn’t just want to perform for “Uptown people” and doesn’t want to see ordinary people being beaten by police just because they want to come and see him perform but were not invited. Mugabe agrees to organize a free concert for the masses on the next day.
Bob Marley quotes from the song Zimbabwe “Soon we will see who is the real revolutionary”.
Carrington, Renwick asks if they got the right man, relates that there have been reports of atrocities in the north, Carrington says that it’s Africa so a strong leader is needed, not sure
I’m not sure if you can consider this play “entertaining” in the traditional sense; however, for those of us who are interested in how politics actually works, it is a great play and incredibly informative. Dramatically speaking, there are many interesting moments which could be considered even poignant if you are knowledgable about Zimbabwe’s post-independence history. For example, the fack that Edgar Tekere was so close to Mugabe, that he actually was the one to encourage Mugabe to become a leader in his party, is ironic given their current rivalry. Bob Marley quoting from his song Zimbabwe by saying “soon we will see who is the real revolutionary” is very striking, as it has become quite clear that, although a Black Nationalist, Mugabe has seemed particularly inconsiderate about the lives of poor Zimbabweans and the fact that he at first only organized Marley’s concert for the political elite and their guests foreshadows this. Rasta Ngwenya describes Bob Marley’s first concert in Harare as follows:
In fact, the first official words uttered in Zimbabwe, following the raising of the new flag, were: “Ladies and gentlemen, Bob Marley and the Wailers.”
Twenty minutes later, Bob and The Wailers started their set. As soon as the first notes rang out, pandemonium broke loose in the enormous crowd gathered by the entrance to the sports stadium: the gates shook and began to break apart as the crush increased, the citizens of Harare, both excited and angry at being excluded from seeing these inspirational musicians.
As clouds of teargas drifted almost immediately into the stadium itself, the audience on the pitch fell on their feet in an attempt to protect themselves. The group members tasted their first whiffs of the gas and left the stage. “All of a sudden,” said Judy Mowatt, “you smell this thing taking over your whole body, going in your throat until you want to choke, burning your eyes. I looked at Rita (Marley) and Marcia and they were feeling the same thing.”
“I feel my eyes and nose,” remembered Family Man, “and think, from when I was born, I have to come all the way to Africa to experience teargas.”
Bob, however seemed to have moved to a transcendent state. His eyes were shut, and for a while the gas didn’t seem to have an effect at all. Then he opened his eyes and left the stage.
Backstage, the group had taken refuge in a truck. Outside they could see small children fainting and women collapsing. It looked like death personified to Mowatt, who briefly wondered whether they had been brought to Zimbabwe to meet their ends.
She persuaded someone to drive her and the other I-Threes back to the hotel, only to discover on the television that the show had resumed. After about half an hour Bob and the Wailers had gone back on stage. They ended their set with Zimbabwe, a song Bob had worked on during his pilgrimage to Ethiopia late in 1978, and which became arguably his most important single composition.
Bob was just coming offstage as Mowatt and her fellow women singers returned to the stadium. “Hah,” he looked at them with a half-grin, “now I know who the real revolutionaries are.”
It was decided that the group would play another concert the following day, to give the ordinary people of Zimbabwe an opportunity to see Bob Marley.
Over 100 000 people-an audience that was almost entirely black- watched this show by Bob Marley and The Wailers. The group performed for an hour and a half, the musicians fired up to a point of ecstasy. But Bob, who uncharacteristically hadn’t bothered to turn up for the sound check, was strangely lacklustre in his performance; a mood of disillusionment had set in around him following the tear-gassing the previous day.
After the day’s performance, the Bob Marley team was invited to spend the evening at the home of Tekere. This was not the most relaxed of social occasions.
As the henchmen strutted around with their Kalashnikovs, Mills was informed by Tekere that he wanted Bob to stay in Zimbabwe and tour the country. “Bob told me to say he wasn’t going to, but the guy didn’t want to hear me.”
While Bob remained in the house, Rob Partridge and Phil Cooper sat out in the garden. “I could hear,” said Cooper, head of international affairs, “Tekere saying to Bob, ‘I want this man Cooper. He’s been going around putting your image everywhere. He’s trying to portray you as a bigger man than our President.’ I could hear all this.
“Then Bob came out and said to us, in hushed, perfect Queen’s English; ‘I think it’s a good idea for you to leave’.”
“Partridge and I went and packed, and took the first international flight out, which was to Nairobi. About five months later Tekere was arrested and put in jail; he had been involved in the murder of some white settler.
I was particularly fascinated to learn about the roles played by Zambia’s President Kenneth Kaunda and Indo-Guyanese politician and former Foreign Minister of Guyana, Sir Sonny Ramphal, who is played by the writer of the play Kwame Kwei-Armah.
About Kwame Kwei-Armah
Kwame Kwei-Armah is a British playwright, actor, and singer. He is the First Black Briton to have a play staged on London’s West End when his play Elmina’s Kitchen was staged in Garrick’s Theatre in 2005. He was born Ian Roberts in London. His parents are immigrants from Grenada. He changed his name to Kwame Kwei-Armah in his 20s after he traced his family’s roots to Ghana.
Zimbabwe’s History: Key Dates (BBC News article available online)
Zimbabwe at 30 Audio Slideshow (BBC News article available online)
Joshua Nkomo’s Obituary (BBC News article available online)
Viewpoint: Kaunda on Mugabe (BBC News article available online)
House of Stone at 30 by Farai Sevenzo (BBC News article available online)
Lucian Msamati Cut His Teeth Doing Political Theatre in Zimbabwe. Now He Has a Lead Role in Alexander McCall Smith’s Rose-Tinted Vision of Africa by Aida Edemariam (Guardian article available online)
Interview (1980) with Lord Carrington by Time Magazine (Time article available online)
Interview (2000) with Lord Carrington by David Frost (BBC News transcript available online)
When Bob Marley Caused a Riot in Africa by Rasta Ngwenya (article available online)
Video of Bob Marley performing Zimbabwe, with lyrics available
Profile of Kwame Kwei-Armah (article available online)
Interview (2008) with Kwame Kwei-Armah available online
Interview with Kwame Kwei-Armah available online
Matthew returns to Nigeria, the land of his birth. He has come to secure the release of his son who has become caught up in the politics of a land in turmoil; a land he has fallen in love with.
The cast of the play is as follows:
Matthew …. Lucian Msamati
The General …. Jude Akuwudike
Medina …. Lorraine Burroughs
Keith …. David Ajala
Sunday …. Obi Abili
Inenevwerha …. Gbemisola Ikumelo
Director: Femi Elufowoju Jr.
The story begins in Britain with couple Matthew and Medina being interrupted by a telephone call from Nigeria. The scene changes rapidly to an airport in Port Harcourt in Nigeria’s Niger Delta. Medina is upset because thieves have run off with her bag and the houseboy, Sunday, did nothing to stop them. Matthew doesn’t seem to really care; he is more concerned with why he and Medina have come to Nigeria-to find his teenage son who is missing after reportedly been involved in an oil fire that has killed many people. He speaks with local Area Boys in order to find someone who can help him locate his son and they direct him to The General. From the General, Matthew learns that his son has become an activist for the rights of the people negatively affected by oil drilling and has joined the group Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). He demands that Matthew bring money in order to continue the search for his son and bribe the police who are also searching for his son because of his involvement in the fire.
As the story progresses, we learn that Matthew, a British Nigerian widower and engineer who grew up in Warri but left when he was 10, sent his then 13 year old son, Keith, to live with his aunt in Warri after his son shot him. His son Keith was getting involved with local gangs in Peckham and also was very unhappy about his father’s relationship with British Jamaican Medina. Five years later, and Keith has gone missing.
Medina is very uncomfortable in Nigeria and looks for comfort and advice from her father who used to work in the Jamaican Embassy in Nigeria. Matthew asks Medina for the money to give to the General, some $20,000, and her father helps her get it into the country. After reading a news article about the devastation of the oil fire which is blamed on Keith, Medina concludes that Keith is dead but Matthew doesn’t believe her. According to the article, Keith, as well as other Niger Delta militants, was involved in illegal oil bunkering, basically stealing oil from oil pipelines. As many of the local people can’t get access to or afford fuel, they often try to come and collect some of this oil as well, although most of the oil is collected by militants in order to pay for supplies and arms in their struggle. Fires often break out at these pipelines, as had happened in this case, and many people died. Matthew and Medina go to visit the site of the oil fire with Sunday and they meet Inenevwerha, who lives in abject poverty and whose brother died in the fire. Matthew was told that she had seen his son but she doesn’t speak of him and instead breaks down after talking about the devastation of the oil fire which burned people down to their bones. Medina is deeply moved by Inenevwerha’s story.
Matthew is still convince that his son did not die in the fire. He confronts the General who admits that Keith is not dead and that he is actually hiding him from the police. It is the General who indoctrinated Keith into the resistance movement of the Niger Delta. The General considers Keith to be like his son, as he and his wife have been unable to have children due to infertility produced by oil pollution. Matthew gets to see Keith, who now wants to be called by his Nigerian name Keefay. Keith tells his father how abandoned he felt when he was sent to Nigeria but he is also happy because it is in Nigeria that he learned to be a man. Matthew learns that Keith is actually in a relationship with Inenevwerha and they are expecting a child. Matthew asks for Keith’s forgiveness and the father and son are reconciled. Matthew leaves the money with Keith and says that he will stay in Port Harcourt as he wishes to see the birth of his grandchild.
The play explores identity as we see through out that Matthew is trying to assert his “Nigerianness” but constantly fails because he is out of touch with the political situation and can’t even really understand the local language anymore, apart from pidgin English. When he finally meets his son, he has to demand that he speak to him in English. Medina and Matthew’s relationship seems to fracture also because of identity. Medina, although Black, isn’t African or Nigerian and feels very out of place in the Niger Delta. Matthew doesn’t seem to appreciate the situation he’s put her in and goes on to demand to borrow a large sum of money from her. At the end of the play, he dismisses Keith’s concerns that Medina might not be happy to learn that Matthew wants to stay in Nigeria. Matthew’s lack of consideration for Medina upset me and seemed completely disrespectful, particularly after he borrowed the money from her. It’s as if in reclaiming his Nigerian identity and thus being able to connect with his son, he feels he must reject Medina and her Black British identity. It seems that Matthew is asked to choose between Medina and what she represents and his son, the choice which Keith had demanded his father make five years earlier when he shot him. Medina’s character is not played or written to be unlikable, quite the opposite, which makes Matthew’s treatment of her even more troubling.
The injustices facing the peoples of the Niger Delta are very clearly laid out in the play and will hopefully draw Westerners’ attention to the ever worsening situation in the area.
Interview (2009) with Rex Obano available online
Interview (2010) with Rex Obano available online
Interview with Lorraine Burroughs available online
Interview (2010) with Lorraine Burroughs available online
Interview with Gbemisola Ikumelo available online
Interview (2003) with Femi Elufowoju Jr.available online
Interview (2009) with Femi Elufowoju Jr. available online
Interview (2010) with Femi Elufowouju Jr. avaialble online
Blood Oil dripping from Nigeria by A. Walker (BBC article available online)
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)