Feast is a work of ambitious scope, taking on the familiar story of African enslavement and subsequent dispersion throughout the Atlantic world. It’s harrowing subject matter, as is made clear in the slavery scenes, but there are plenty of humorous and touching moments along the way as the narrative tracks the Yoruba diaspora through three sisters and the colourful characters of their native African religion. The first hour is utterly captivating, weaving dance, music and dialogue together to depict the dramatic capture of the sisters by slavers and their journey into uncertainty. Thin chains sweep across the performers, the waves of the horrific Atlantic crossing, giving life to Lysander Ashton’s poignant projections of slaving ships and original slave sale records.
Written by five playwrights, the play then moves to depict the experience of the Yoruba diaspora in four locations at different times; Brazil, Cuba, the Deep South and the UK. Although these scenes are lacking in coherency given the various authors, the multiple locations are a welcome change from the purely US-based narrative of the slave experience we’ve seen recently in Lincoln and Django Unchanged. Brazil in 1888 is a superb emotional examination of the end of slavery and the plight of an elderly slave forced to leave by her former master, both cast adrift by their new circumstances. From here the action moves to a sit-in in 1960s America, which is more an obligatory nod to Martin Luther King rather than a meaningful engagement with the US context, and then the wonderfully memorable Cuban “black communist prostitute” who discovers the power of her orisha or deity after the visit of a British tourist desperate for advice. The set concludes with Britain 2012 and a young black athlete criticised in hilariously credible street slang by other young black people for allowing her “pinktoe” trainer to give her orders.
The conclusion is reached via a series of feasts, but rather than using this idea of this important communal meal to unify the performance, the result is one of disconnection and loss of interest with the various scenes running in to each other. The reference to diaspora and dispersion of peoples is clear, but it doesn’t help the play. Another issue is that the spiritual beliefs of the diaspora are meant to be the focus here, but it’s rather tacked on to a wider narrative of being black in the Atlantic world despite the present day strength of the Yoruba spiritual element in Cuba and Brazil. Feast leaves you with the sense of mere remnants of Yoruba spiritual culture often unconsciously operating in the modern world, and although it suffers from the lack of cohesion, the music, dance and humour are spot-on.
Feast is at the Young Vic until the 23 February. For more information and to book tickets, visit the Young Vic website.