Artist: Selina Thompson
The thing about grief is that it is hard to place and yet there are constant reminders of it everywhere. The other thing about grief is that we are conditioned to believe that it is a transient state. What happens when the grief is carried for generations and embedded in one’s history and embodied in one’s race? When one’s presence anywhere is a constant reminder of displacement?
salt., written and performed by Selina Thompson Ltd. as part of the 2018 Next Wave Festival, deals with the complex emotional, systemic and real consequences of slavery, of living in the diaspora, of the disconnection to land. But this is not a superficial exploration of motifs. This is not the flattening, the palatable, the colourful, the inviting version. It is not the sanitary and superficial version nor is it the purposely-aestheticised ugliness. What salt. holds in its hand is the pushing and pulling inherent within the difficult condition of wanting to desperately understand one’s present through one’s past.
The ancestors are important. Generations are important to this work. We are reminded of their importance from the very beginning of the performance, by the pouring of rum onto the floor for those not present to drink from.
Through very skilled casual and familial story telling the audience is taken into a freight ship, retracing what was once the transatlantic slave trade route from West Africa to the newly colonised Americas and the Caribbean from the 16th to early 19th. Jamaica is the final destination of Thompson’s travel, and where her family migrated to the Brixton from. We expect a narrative of closure based on reconciling the ancestral past within the waters of Ghana. But in the spirit of dealing with difficult complexity, this is not what happens. Because for this to be a happy journey racism would need to be a thing of the past.
Instead, this is a long journey in a ship with a captain perpetuating a dynamic not unlike that which took place on the surface of the waters traversed by men and women kidnapped all those centuries ago. We are reminded by Thompson that her travels retracing the slave trade route took place around the same time as the surfacing of the Black Lives Matter movement, because racism is not dead. Disparate segments are intelligently woven together as part of a larger narrative. The bodily, the emotional, the objective and the theoretical critiques all come together in the ship. We get to know its suffocating rooms and its hallways. We are told of nausea, we are told of moments of depression and despair, as the captain divides and conquers amongst the crew and passengers.
The set design takes us to a kitchen featuring a representation of a triangle. I wonder a few times whether this work would have visually worked better outdoors where it could have spoken to place a lot more directly...
There are huge rocks of pink salt on the stage. It’s a visual, physical cue that ties the themes together via its presence in so many of the micro aspects that are encompassed in this ambitious production. There is salt in sweat, salt in tears. Importantly, rocks of salt are a concentrated version of what one can taste in the ocean. Salt becomes a metaphor for the memory of what rests in the water. These are the spirits of the African ancestors. Those who perished or jumped in the passage from one continent to the other.
The large rocks begin to be smashed. One by one. They are lined up at the front of the stage and smashed. This is sweaty toil. The mallet swings back and falls down with a rhythmic force. A force that propels words that are emphasised as a large mallet hits each one splitting it into tiny pieces. Fragments flying everywhere. This is labour. Angry, emotional and raw justifiable anger. Powerful, productive, an anger that understands itself. The anger of a black woman. The anger that is supposed to be suppressed for the comfort of the coloniser. The anger that is essential. But it is labour nonetheless and so Thompson, dressed in a white cotton dress, sweats and drinks water and sits down and rests.
As a migrant to this country I remember telling myself that I would never forget where I came from. That place that had formed me, and that I would always go back to. I remember of this as I watch a video projection presented half way through the performance. It shows a scene between an older Jamaican woman and a man living in the UK. It’s a soapie and the female character speaks of no longer being able to go back to that place she has longed for all her life. She doesn’t know its streets anymore. She weeps.
Thompson speaks to the painful irony of losing her grandmother while on this journey to understand her roots and missing the funeral, furthering her understanding of her own position within the story.
It becomes clearer as time goes on that this performance is not really about presenting a piece of theatre. And it is not spoken word either, despite it’s use of text and word repetition as devices. salt. is a ritual. The personal ritual of one young woman of colour living in the diaspora. A familiar story to many of course but not often discussed in this way. Connecting the very personal with a broader history, with the body, with the spiritual. One that those in the audience who are part of the diaspora understand immediately. There are a lot of tears around me for most of the duration of the work.
As I write this I hold my own small rock of salt, which the audience were encouraged to pick up from a basket as we walked out. I feel its crystallised surface and its many jagged and rough angles with my fingers. It exists like that, as a fragment of something that was once much larger.
Lucreccia Quintanilla is an artist and writer working in Narrm.