The Gate Theatre’s production of Jamaica Kincaid’s 1988 creative essay, A Small Place, is an eloquent and impassioned roar in the parasitic face of colonialism.
I was lucky enough to be raised by a mother who values the Arts. She decorated my childhood with walks along the Southbank and bus rides into “town” to visit London’s museums, galleries and theatres. Some of my happiest family memories are of birthday theatre trips to see musicals: Beauty and the Beast where I talked, for weeks after, about how on earth they managed to execute the Beast’s magical transformation; the year after seeing The Lion King when we listened to the soundtrack every day before going to school; making my brother learn the entire routine for the finale of Hairspray. This is to say, I feel comfortable in theatres.
Walking into the Gate Theatre, I immediately felt, again, that sense of familiarity. In the same way as Nine Night, Barber Shop Chronicles and Kwame Kwei-Armah’s Twelfth Night, pre-performance music is used in A Small Place to evoke an atmosphere that feels distinctly Black. Something not dissimilar to a deep exhale is encouraged by the use of well-chosen music in the moments before the play begins. Blu Cantrell’s ‘Breathe’ told me to relax. It was a welcome – I was supposed to be there.
Unlike my companion for the evening, I wasn’t familiar with Jamaica Kincaid’s work, and I soon realised that the music had completely lulled me into a false sense of security. Everything in Anna Himali Howard’s production works cohesively to create a sense of disorientation. Camilla Clarke’s disjointed seating arrangement – an angular assembly of chairs and benches, which left the audience facing in several directions – created a maze through which the actor’s weave and the audience crane their necks to follow. The overlapping narrative was performed by actors, Cherrelle Skeete and Nicola Alexis, who seem to simultaneously exist in the same space and be completely unaware of each other’s presence. The mismatched assortment of objects that comprise the set design; the progressively disturbed and crackly acoustic environment: all left one disoriented.
That’s not to say, however, that these elements are negative in any way.
To be able to sit back and relax, to ease into the narrative of this performance and let its language wash over you would be to entirely miss the point. Howard’s production supports Kincaid’s language in holding the audience to account for their complicity in the neo-colonial structure of tourism in Antigua. A Small Place is a confrontation; confrontations are not comfortable.
A Small Place is often described as enraged, but this is undeniably a righteous anger. For many islands in the West-Indies, tourism is their primary industry; despite emancipation, and their status as ‘respected members of the commonwealth’, they are wholly reliant on a structure that disenfranchises locals and reserves the national resources and natural wonders for outsiders, effectively othering those who live there and separating them from genuine access to their homeland. Kincaid sharply and deftly conveys that this system does not serve the people of Antigua and that the legacy of colonialism has fractured the Antiguan identity, perhaps irreparably.
Cherrelle Skeete and Nicola Alexis are forces. They bring fire to Kincaid’s intelligent, scathing condemnation of European colonisation and exploitation in Antigua, navigating the searing dialogue with nuanced deliveries. Though admittedly, it was, at times, irritating to have to twist myself in my seat to follow the movements of the actors as they meandered in and out of the audience, the performances held my focus, pulling my gaze around the playing space like the ball of twine that was eventually unravelled by the actors in the play’s climax. Skeete’s ability, in particular, to highlight the humour in Kincaid’s writing, giving it the space to shine in what is otherwise an ireful text is impressive. The wry smiles and assenting murmurs I was able to share with those knowing members of the audience reminded me that Kincaid’s voice is a familiar one.
Unfortunately, the universality of this piece is also what makes it most horrifying. Yes, Kincaid is writing about Antigua but her words apply to anywhere in the West Indies, anywhere in the world touched by ‘human rubbish’. For many, the issues illuminated by the play are not entirely new, but the challenging tone of the narrative may well be. As Kincaid presents us with the social, economic and spiritual destruction of Antigua, and by extension the West Indies as a whole, she firmly places the blame at the feet of the audience. Therefore, if you feel discomfort when watching this production, you are not permitted to shy away from it.
After all, ‘you will have to accept that this is mostly your fault.’
Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place was shown at the Gate Theatre from 8th November to 1st December. click here for more information.