‘Sold’, the story of Mary Prince
In the early ‘90s Amantha Edmead read Mary Prince’s autobiography as part of a Black history class in London, England.
It was a time in her life when she was interested in revolutions and the people behind them; the British abolitionist, who was the first Black woman to write about her life as a slave, didn’t cut it.
That all changed after Ms Edmead got involved in a play about enslavement where none of the three African characters in it had been given a voice.
Born in England to parents from the Caribbean, she “was angered”. Her thoughts went back to Mary Prince.
Sold: The Story of Mary Prince opens the 47th annual Bermuda Festival of the Performing Arts on Thursday. “Inspired by the storytelling traditions of the West African griot”, it has caused audiences in the UK “to rethink what they know and believe about the reality of being enslaved”.
“When I first read Mary's story, I was horrified by what had happened to her but I didn't see her as that kind of heroine figure who was out changing the world,” Ms Edmead said.
“But when it came to working on it this time …. the long and the short of it is I had decided not to do that piece of work and I was angered. It was personal to me with having parents from the Caribbean; you had to hear the voices of the people who were enslaved. And the first thing that came to mind for me then was: if you're going to do something about that, then it's going to be the story of Mary Prince.”
As described by the Bermuda Festival: “Sold is a play about one woman’s extraordinary journey to overcome the brutality of slavery and become a beacon for the British anti-slavery movement. Born in 1788 into slavery in the British colony of Bermuda, Mary Prince went on to become an autobiographer and champion of freedom. Her book had an electrifying effect on the abolitionist movement helping to free many Africans in bondage.”
A year after its first run, the play received the Best Ensemble Music Theatre Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival; in 2020 it was the Show of the Week winner at London’s Vault Festival.
“Often, living in the UK, it seems that enslavement [only] happened in the Americas. That is the picture that's been painted often of popular culture. Whereas Britain, which I see being the biggest enslavers out there and human traffickers, got involved later in the day but then really made it pay,” Ms Edmead said.
The first show had an audience of 50 people who “were just blown away by the story”.
As Sold grew in popularity Ms Edmead, who wrote the play and performs in it, brought in Euton Daley as director.
“We were just struck by the fact that this woman had survived all of this hardship and pain and kept going,” he said. “What was it that kept her going? What is it that keeps people, when they’re in their own struggle, what keeps them going?
“We had great fun just looking at how one storyteller, in a sense, could seamlessly move through lots of different characters – who she's becoming and where they are. And that was the fun of creating it really and we’re pleased with how that works.”
True to The History of Mary Prince, the play starts in Bermuda, where Mary Prince was born.
“We have a programme which looks at Mary's timeline and also looks at enslavement across the British colonies’ timeline as well. So the role of Bermuda is the beginning, basically. It's where she comes from. And it also places Britain and Bermuda right at the heart of enslavement. So for us, it was a truth story, and it's a story that is a British story as well as a Bermudian story,” Mr Daley said.
Interest has grown since the inaugural performance at a festival in Oxford in 2018. The three shows here will be the first time Sold has been performed outside the UK and the first time Ms Edmead has been to Bermuda.
“It’s a real honour. So lots of the places we've talked about or mentioned when we were rehearsing we’ll be able to see, from her early years.”
They were asked to be part of this year’s festival after “some Bermudians saw the show in London”, Mr Daley said.
“They were Bermudians in the UK or [people] who had family back in Bermuda. And so a few saw it in the beginning and then galvanised quite a lot of other Bermudians to see the show as well. There was quite a big [group] at one performance where the word had spread.”
The pandemic caused “a hiatus” during which the pair put Sold on film and developed “an educational resource” for it. In June 2021 performances started again.
“One of the things that we've used this show to do a lot in the UK [is to highlight] the heroine that she was; the spirit that she had to do what she did at that time to be a woman of so many firsts.”
Ms Edmead believes that reparations to the descendants of slaves are appropriate, that “you can't just [leave] the past [in] the past, because it influences the present”.
“One of our things is what can we do as individuals to make change here and now for there to be a better world and a fairer world; and particularly when you're looking at people of African heritage to change how that looks.”
Added Mr Daley: “Often change isn’t made by those with the power and status. Change is always made by ordinary people who said enough is enough. And it's only then that power pass laws or change things to put those things into practice. But it's come about because ordinary people had enough really. And it was the same in Mary's case. She'd had enough. So she decided to do something about it.”
In the Q&A sessions at the end of each performance many people ask what it is that they can do.
“We have discussions often with audiences as to why our history and our stories are never told. They’re out there in the public domain and you have to dig them out and find them. And then they're incomplete when you do. So how do we exist if our history doesn't exist and doesn't exist in ways that's easily accessible to people?” Mr Daley said.
Change comes when people think about the “small changes” people can make, Ms Edmead added.
“On the back of George Floyd, all of a sudden our everyday experiences were put into the spotlight as if they were brand new ideas or right steps. And some people were honestly saying that they had no idea and were seeing things for the first time. Particularly in the early shows, there were lots of questions about how do we educate ourselves.”
Sold is on at Centennial Hall, St Paul AME Church on Thursday at 7.30pm and Friday and Saturday at 8pm. Tickets are available at bermudafestival.org