Selina Thompson says “sorry” a lot, but she’s not apologising, not really. In fact, Thompson has spent 26 years living in the UK, being made to feel less because she’s black, and she’s tired. The weight of ingrained racism and the leftovers of colonialism haunt her everyday, and, in Salt, she tries to help the (mostly white) audience understand what it’s like to carry that weight, that sense of being ‘other’.
The show begins with Thompson dragging a huge, pink block of salt onto the stage, making literal the weight she carries. Over the course of the show, she smashes it into smaller and smaller pieces, remembering the heavy, manual work that slaves were forced to do.
Thompson is a fantastic writer and thinker, and the script goes a long way towards expressing the deep, twisted hurt of being a black woman. So when Thompson opens her mouth and says: “I am a woman. I am an artist. I am black,” we can feel the heaviness of each of those things, and she is apologising for none of them.
What she does do in this slightly scrappy 90 minutes is think about each of these things. As a woman, what does her female body allow her to do or restrict her from doing? The threat of rape, of violence, her relationship with her mother, her adoption, the antagonism she receives from another black woman – Thompson pulls all of these deep-seated things into the light and examines them. As a black woman, she shares the indignity of having her hair searched at every airport, of being called “nigger”, of recognising that in insidious, silent ways, her black skin makes her ‘other’ to many people.
And finally, as an artist, Thompson feels a need to explore these things about herself, to re-trace the transatlantic slave-ship routes, to visit the Ghanaian coast where so many people were shipped off as slaves. Part mourning for a past she did not personally experience, but whose aftermath she feels deep within her bones, and part a search for answers or peace or release, Salt is the resulting show.
Thompson spent three weeks on a cargo ship, travelling from Antwerp to Ghana. She then travelled to the States, to Jamaica and back to Antwerp. The journey itself is part of this story, as Thompson recounts the racism of the crew, the maleness of the boat (she and her film-maker friend are the only women) and the fear of sexual violence. The rest of the story is Thompson’s search for… something. Some kind of space to mourn, or find some answers, or find some kind of peace. She finds none of these things, but her honest and heart-felt sharing of the experience is moving and subtle.
She doesn’t pull her punches – and nor should she – as she pokes at the complexities of the word “problematic”. White people can hide behind the word, acknowledging the problems without facing them, while black people have to live them. And that grinds you down, as Thompson eloquently shows.
As a piece of theatre, the show doesn’t always hang together – it was made in the last few weeks, and you can tell. It’s a bit fragmented, a bit scrappy at times, and some of the visual props could be left in the rehearsal room. But that doesn’t stop Salt hitting you like a punch in the face, and confronting the prejudices and aggressions that black women have to navigate on a daily basis.
Salt was on as part of Mayfest 2016. For more of their programme, click here.