Writer: Sutara Gayle
Director: Jo McInnes
Actor and playwright Sutara Gayle – born Lorna – has had a whirlwind life. As Lorna Gee, she became a pioneering figure in dancehall music. After creating her first single Three Weeks Gone (mi Giro) after being spurred on by a chance meeting with Linton Kwesi Johnson in the dole queue, the first time she heard her single was on a radio in Holloway Prison. Even before then, she had had a tumultuous relationship with authority that saw her move from school to school, before being placed under a care order by the local council.
Aspects of Gayle’s life are explored in The Legends of Them, a one-woman performance written and performed by Gayle that centres around her time at a spiritual retreat in India, where she is encouraged to make peace with her past.
Like many memories, a lot of what emerges is non-linear and fragmented. The most recent are recalled first, as Gayle re-enacts the highs of her musical career, winning awards even as she was becoming immersed in a drugs scene that saw her smuggling, dealing and taking narcotics.
Gayle peppers her recollections with songs as she portrays her mother, Euphemia, keeping her brood of four boys and four girls together by working as a seamstress (“My sewing machine is my ninth child”). She also recalls but does not dwell too long upon, a history of male domestic violence and coercive control within her large family.
The other big traumatic event in her life was the 1985 Brixton riot, triggered when Gayle’s sister Cherry Groce was shot in her home by armed police looking for Cherry’s son. Like many of Gayle’s memories, they are accompanied by a collage of video projections, fragmented and occasionally repeating. Gayle describes the effect the shooting had on Cherry, who was left paralysed from the waist down, and had to be operated on without anaesthetic. (She died in 2011 from kidney failure, directly connected to her injuries 26 years earlier.)
Cherry is one of the legends Gayle references in her show title, along with her brother Mooji, mother Euphemia and their ancestor, Nanny of the Maroons, an 18th-century leader of a Jamaican community of formerly enslaved Africans.
In the play’s quiet moments, as Gayle attempts to find silence away from the memories, we are invited to consider with her just who a person is if not the sum of their memories. In those silent spaces, when memory has been banished, what remains is unique to us. Only by appreciating that can we let memories back in – not as weights to bind us to a predetermined life, but as part of the landscape in which we live and thrive.
Gayle’s first work as a playwright feels like the work she has been building up to her whole life. An immensely personal journey, it is one we feel privileged to share.
Continues until 30 September 2023