Sixteen year-old Soldier Boy lies bleeding from a knife wound, on the run from a gang leader he has disrespected. Instead of an ambulance team, the first person on the scene is a fellow fugitive, in tribal robes, who introduces himself as Desert Man and explains that he is also on the run, from a gang of slave-masters who lived 300 years ago. “Oh, I get it,” Soldier Boy says scornfully. “You’re the black Dr Who.”
Actually, the black Virgil would be closer to the mark, as Mojisola Adebayo’s musical drama, produced by Nitro, shows Desert Man leading Soldier Boy on a spiralling journey through colonial history not unlike Dante’s introduction to the Inferno. The juxtapositions are sometimes startling, and often quite comic, as when the action swings seamlessly between scenes of brutality in Botany Bay to Soldier Boy’s cronies larking about in Sofa Warehouse.
The piece was inspired by the Black Founders, Cassandra Pybus’s study of black convicts transported to Australia, and its freewheeling scope covers similar ground to Lawrence Hill’s novel The Book of Negroes, which told the story of slaves offered freedom in return for fighting on the British side during the American war of independence. In its bold attempt to trace allusions to the Stephen Lawrence murder back to the seeds of the slave trade, there are points when the reach of Adebayo’s 90-minute drama may seem to exceed its grasp. Yet the fluidity of Felix Cross’s production is aided by his own compositions, sung a cappella by a tight, ensemble cast; and Emmanuel Idowu impresses as the dying boy who unexpectedly finds someone else’s life flashing in front of his eyes.
By Alfred Hickling
Thursday 27 May 2010