Entering a room resembling a forgotten community library, from exposed wires hanging beyond a missing ceiling panel in that all too familiar shade of cement, to bare shelves lined with odd books and old board games, I am faced with a labyrinth-like perpendicular row of benches stretching across the entirety of the space. As clocks punctuate the time, fluorescent lights intermittently flicker above. A sense of emptiness waiting to be filled with action.
Beginning and ending with minimised focus in the dim of a reading light over the pages of Jamaica Kincaid’s 1998 essay, A Small Place, Cherrelle Skeete and Nicola Alexis begin reading. For the sense of vacantness is to accommodate Anna Himali Howard’s and Season Butler’s searing adaption. A riptide of words streams from Skeete’s and Alexis’ mouth – meeting in the middle of the space in which it slowly submerges the audience, unnoticed until it is too late.
The text charts Antigua’s colonial history, framing the way in which it is understood by people of the island and the invaders. It is a play of oppositions, with us as an unrelenting ‘you’. Opening to the travels of a hypothetical tourist through “12-mile-wide, 9-mile-long” soil, repositioning us to consider where our past really places us in relation to atrocities we have the privilege of distancing ourselves from.
Once the tourist is abandoned, it delves into the legacy of corruption, greed and cruelty left behind that plagues the country to this day; after our government washes their hands and believes their absence is balance without thought to what remains.
The layout of the space forces physical engagement, and therefore attention. This is not a piece that will compromise on being heard. It would be a mistake to frame the performance as oration, though easy to see why one would try. There is a mastery in the way Skeete and Alexis navigate the text; assertive rhythm beckoning the audience to jump in and follow syllable to syllable.
Once lost in the text their delivery opens layers over each other; sarcastic tones so perfectly balanced, making their point along with the cuts; anger that corners spectators from both directions in war-like strategies, leaving no room for escape; the truth relayed to each individual through eyes of no theatrical conceit.
Camilla Clarke’s immaculately detailed design supports Skeete and Alexis without overwhelming the text or their presence. The setting of a library is contextually relevant, as well as finding ingenious ways for them to demonstrate complexities in elegant simplicity with no room for misunderstanding.
There is a point in the production where the audience is left in chaos that has creeped gradually before exploding unexpectedly. This is just one of the ways in which Howard’s direction immerses and makes tangible deeply painful realities foreign to a lot of us. A Small Place offers no solution, as there is none; nor does it ask for retribution, because nothing of equal weight exists. It only seeks to re-engrave minds that have the option to forget.
A Small Place is playing Gate Theatre until 1 December. For more information and tickets, click here.