The Great Experiment – Tara Arts, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Devisers: Rosanna Lowe, Ery Nzaramba, and the cast

Director: Michael Walling

When slavery was abolished in the 19th century, the businessmen whose livelihoods had depended upon enforced, unpaid labour faced the issue of how to continue to find workers.

In Mauritius, a small island in the Indian Ocean and a territory of the British Empire, the answer was indenture – the mass import of working men (and some women) from India, in a scheme that the British government sanctioned as a “great experiment”, but which had so many similarities to the slavery it was replacing. The mass economic migration transformed Mauritius into Britain’s premier sugar producer, but at what cost to the island and its society?

Border Crossings’ devised piece takes the Mauritian experience as its focus, structuring its exploration as staged recreations of rehearsal room dialogues and exercises, as well as imagined scenes of Mauritian people of the time.

This technique allows some of the potential pitfalls in the approach, from casting choices to who gets to tell these stories. Thus we see Tobi King Bakare on the phone to his agent as he frets that, as the only black cast member, he’ll be expected to play the slave roles, while Hannah Douglas (also on the phone, to a friend) sheepishly admits that the story of importance to Asian peoples is being directed by a white, middle-aged male Oxford graduate.

Two of the five-strong cast, Nisha Dassyne and David Furlong, both come from Mauritian families. Dassyne in particular impresses as her exploration of her ancestors’ stories causes her to question the veracity of the family folklore. Stronger still is her furious, visceral explanation of why the Indian immigrant population feel such shame – sparked, uncomfortably, by how they felt treated as if on a par with the slaves they replaced, when they themselves saw themselves as better.

But when it comes to slavery, shame fans out – such as when Douglas’s family tree is discovered to go back to a man who himself owned slaves. We are expected to use the passage of history as an excuse to lose the shame; it rarely happens thus.

And it is this inexorable connection between the past and the present which fuels The Great Experiment’s greatest moments. The dichotomy of wanting to distance oneself from one’s ancestors’ mistakes, while retaining a sense of their culture – something that slaves and the indentured were assumed not to do – is a recurring theme.

So too is how much one should expand the parallels of slavery and indenture to other parts of the world and other times. The climax of the show comes in a furious loop, Tony Guilfoyle’s points about the treatment of the 19th century Irish – and the perception from others that expanding the discussion might somehow diminish the experience, and importance, of black people’s history – creating a circular argument that reflects so many divisive discussions today.

The only way of breaking those circular arguments is knowledge gained from listening. By focussing on an island whose history has rarely featured in our collective consciousness about slavery and indenture, Border Crossings’ haunting stories provide us with the tools to explore our global history, our shame, and to recognise where the 21st century needs to learn from the past.

Continues until 23 February 2020

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Haunting stories of indenture

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