January 24-27 The Roundhouse
By Alex Lazaridis F.
As I enter the Roundhouse theatre, near start time, performer-writer Selina Thompson is already on stage, standing behind a wooden kitchen island, silently receiving the audience. She wears a white cotton dress that reaches to the floor. To her right is a small forest of potted tropical plants clustered around a high chair. To her left is a wide purple fabric that begins high in the grid above and, like her dress, comes down to the floor.
Above Thompson’s head is a luminous triangle created by three fluourescent tube lights. This triangle is a symbol for the personal narrative that will unfold during Salt — a journey that traces the outline of the Atlantic slave trade from England to Ghana to Jamaica. Thompson’s story is one of trying to connect her upbringing in the UK—as a black woman of Jamaican parents, a woman who has suffered the abuses of systemic racism—to the history of her enslaved ancestors. She hopes to reconcile her anger and the underlying sense of grief that has been passed down through generations and that she feels as part of her lived experience.
A sledgehammer rests on the lower shelf of the kitchen island. A big rock sits on the floor below it. Safety goggles have been given to the spectators in the two front rows. It stands to reason that the rock is going to get smashed at some point. That this will be a very physical and real action is clear. What is going to get smashed metaphorically remains to be seen. Thompson makes a rule: “When I put on my goggles, you put on your goggles.” I’m about eight rows back, so I guess I’m safe. I wonder if the people in the front row, where my sister-in-law and nephew are sitting, are nervous.
Thompson relates just a few past episodes of the racial abuse she has suffered growing up in Europe, stories that make me cringe and despair at the ignorance that perpetuates such abuse, and make me feel a little hopeless that things can change for the better. Then she gets the sledgehammer and the rock. She’s been describing her sea voyage from England to Ghana on a cargo ship. As is typical of such ships, the job-classifications are stratified according to nationality, with the officer class usually belonging to Western Europeans, often Italians or Norwegians. In this case the officers are Italian and the crew are Filipino. (Disclosure: I did a short study of the cruise ship industry when I was in grad school. Cruise ship society is very stratified, even by deck levels. At the time of my research, Filipinos, who had been on the bottom level for some time, had moved up and were replaced by Europeans from the poorest parts of Eastern Europe).
The Italian captain of the ship is a privileged racist who casually tosses the “N” word around at dinner, in the presence of Thompson, and pontificates on what he considers to be the pscyhological immaturity of the people of Africa, whom he says are like children and will never be capable of true self-governance. It seems, from Thompson’s description, that he either considers her a different category of “black,” intellectually mature enough, as someone raised in the UK, to comprehend his learned diatribe, or that he is reminding her to keep her place—literally, keep it, in the windowless cabin below where she is forced to spend much of her time.
As she tells the story she smashes the rock, which is a salt rock. And this is where, for me, things get really interesting. While Thompson takes it out on the rock, which on one level represents the face of the hated captain, her anger is not directed only at him but at the system of global capitalism that rose up with the slave trade and continues to dominate our lives today. The captain, the crew, the cargo, all of it—Thompson herself—are caught in a web of exploitation in which all human values are subsumed to captial accumulation. Everything has a price. Everything is considered in terms of profitiable return to absent shareholders, even human lives—African lives—as is made so abundantly clear by the history of the Atlantic slave trade and its legacy of inequality and continued exploitation based on racial categorization. She pounds away at the salt rock with the sledgehammer. Even the captain, inexcusable as his behaviour has been, is cog. Even he is a victim, in his way, of the system.
I really appreciate what Thompson is doing here because, in my own world, discussion of oppression and marginalization has become so focused on categories of identity, including racial identity, that the division of social class created by capitalism and how this perpetuates the problem is mostly poorly understood. People talk about their outrage around gender oppression for example, but don’t want to talk about their income, their material wealth or lack of it, their property holdings or lack of them, why they’re making a lot or a little, and how the system has us doing its work to maintain or increase relative poverty and opportunity.
Thompson is able to lay out the stark realities of the slave trade, of her own experience as a victim of racial abuse (which is of course tied to ongoing economic exploitation on racial lines), while also, in spite of her anger and how she’s been treated, gesturing toward power relations that have all of us taking part in the same exploitive game.
By the time Thompson is finished pulverizing the rock it is no longer a boulder, just salt spread across the stage (I can’t help wondering where she gets a big salt rock for every show!). Thompson has put a lot of effort into it. She’s sweating. Hopefully the experience has been cathartic for her. But, as she says, that can only go so far. She set out on her journey to find some kind of answer, some level of peace, a way to address her grief and maybe even to heal. Things unfolded differently than she thought they would. It’s been a journey of vulnerability—“You won’t just be a woman travelling alone, you’ll be a black woman travelling alone, in those countries, and if something happens to you no one will care”—and defiance, “Europe pushes at me, I push back.”
When we exit the theatre, Thompson gives us each a bit of salt rock to take home, a tactile burden to remind us of our responsibility in dealing with the legacy of the slave trade.
Image of Selina Thompson by Richard Davenport.