Victor Romero Evans
Set in the Deep South in 1855, Celia tells of a teenage black slave who murders her master when his sexual advances become too much. Although constitutionally she has the right to defend herself, the prejudice against blacks and manipulation of the evidence lead to her hanging.
Richard Nyeila’s new play is a hard hitting affair that explores the ways in which blacks were enslaved and exploited on American plantations. We see this from the start when Celia’s mother and father, after fleeing their master, decide to abandon their newborn child to be ‘cared for’ by him. It is the choice between that and all of them being slowed down, caught and killed for escaping.
Nyeila used letters and the personal accounts of those slaves involved to tell the story, his stated aim being to show how freedom resulted from the struggle of each successive generation, and not from the captors’ benevolence. In the event, however, this point was only made with partial success.
It seemed clever at first never quite to expose the audience to the full horrors of the situation. At the start, we saw no dogs ourselves but witnessed Celia’s father being felled and savaged by them, and in the whole play we only ever saw the whites fleetingly (and always masked). Instead, the slaves explained what happened through powerful ensemble scenes in which they acted out the brutalities inflicted upon them. The resulting introduction of a slightly comic element steeped these scenes in pathos, and actually made the play more hard hitting by leaving something to the imagination.
The other device frequently used was the monologue with Celia relating her experiences to the audience. These worked by virtue of a superb performance from Diana Walker who stole the show through her sensitive rendering of the character’s emotions. She was ably supported by Glenna Forster-Jones (Celia’s Aunt Letitia), who combined understanding of young love with a firm rod to prevent Celia from getting into trouble with her master, and also by Shango Bijah as Uncle Eli. In humorously declaring to God that he would never work in heaven, having already done enough on earth to last an eternity, he showed how an entirely down-trodden man could still maintain spirit and a sense of self.
The scenery was simple but effective. The only prop was a large ladder that stood centre-stage at an angle and symbolised escape. However, the fact that it stopped in mid-air, making it impossible to go further, revealed the difficulties of the blacks’ position, whilst a crossbar towards the top formed a crucifix shape symbolising salvation. Though the stage was otherwise bare, the whole sense of the Deep South was cleverly conjured up through the deep glow of (usually orange) light projected onto the backdrop.
Cracks began to show in the second half, however. It got wearing being told so much about how people felt through monologues, and not real interaction between characters. In addition, the determination to leave the true horror just to the imagination led to a highly misjudged moment in the killing of the master. The theatrical plan was clearly to see him raise his arm ready to rape Celia, for her to scream ‘no’, and then for the scene to cut so that we never saw the murder itself. With the lights dimming insufficiently, however, it looked like Celia’s scream was enough to see the master flee (since he left the stage) and actually provoked laughter in the audience.
Things picked up towards the end when Celia’s trial, also acted out by the blacks, revealed how the beautifully compiled defence was unfortunately no match for the whites’ simple determination to hang her. However, though much was made of it in the programme, the fact that Celia’s case acted as catalyst for change (slavery was abolished in 1860) was reduced to a few lines in the play. Without more on this, and with so much emphasis placed on monologues, the play felt too much like a simple exposition on what slaves had to endure. Of course, this is worth hearing about, but placing more emphasis upon the wider context would have made for an even greater tribute by highlighting further their triumphs in the face of adversity, and reinforced Nyeila’s central aim.
Nevertheless, in spite of weaknesses in the play’s structure and content, the strong cast exploited what material there was to the full, and ensured that we could still be shocked by events that ultimately happened only 150 years ago.