‘We have some bad hombres here and we’re going to get them out.’
Donald Trump, 19 October, 2016
It’s an inescapable fact that most drugs are bad for your health. But at least if you choose to party hard at the weekend, that choice is only ever really about whether or not you do harm to yourself.
But if capitalism is good at anything, it’s especially good at concealing the consequences of production. This is a magic trick that makes the choice appear to be exclusively about the individual and rarely about the bigger picture. Will this hurt me, rather than who else might this be hurting?
Blackboard Theatre’s Stardust approaches this discrepancy through the lens of Colombia’s narcotrafficking industry. For years, stories of the violence associated with illegal drug trafficking have contributed to global public perception of the South American country as a lawless hinterland. Stardust takes aim at this perception with an expose detailing the unseen consequences of Western recreational drug use on Colombian communities.
Colombian artist Miguel Hernando Torres Umba is our guide on this journey, from the early history of the coca plant to its more prevalent form as powdered cocaine. Native to western South America, we’re told that the coca plant has been used for centuries by indigenous people in sacred rituals. Umba stresses that the plant was used by native people for over a thousand years without any problem. It was the arrival of the Spanish in the sixteenth century that led ultimately to the isolation of cocaine by German chemists in the mid-nineteenth-century. ‘Colombia,’ Umba says, ‘is where a sacred leaf was stolen and pushed around the world with the care and attention of a jackhammer.’
As evidenced by Trump’s ‘bad hombres’ quip, America’s drug-related problems are always the fault of someone else, over there. But Americans (and Europeans before them) have been interfering in and destabilising Colombian politics since at least the early twentieth century. When their industry began to decline in the 1960s, for example, American banana merchants used their established networks to export marijuana. The legacy of these developments directly contributes to Colombia’s current position as chief exporter of Europe’s favourite party drug.
As much as Umba and writer Daniel Dingsdale are intent on educating their audience about the tragic consequences of global recreational cocaine use, there’s an equal desire to dispel the damaging stereotype of Colombia as nothing more than the home of narcoculture. In a perceptive segment, Umba reflects on the cost of such stereotypes, damning Netflix’s Narcos as much as Trump. ‘It’s not that [stereotypes] are false, they’re incomplete,’ he says. ‘They take one thing and exaggerate until it’s all you can think of in a shortcut to identification…it’s a stigma, a mark of shame that casts us as criminal and therefore as people of less value.’
Given such a complex, difficult subject, Blackboard Theatre throw quite a lot at the production. There’s a game show, boxes filled with props hidden in the audience, dance sequences, projected illustrations and a rather contrived back and forth with the show operator. Understandably, some of these sequences are more successful than others and the overarching framing – that odd back and forth with the operator – is its principal weak spot.
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to live for a time in Colombia. It is a beguiling country with a rich history, superb landscapes and wonderful people. Although the spectres of political instability and violence are not entirely dispelled, the country has become much safer as civil conflict has lessened in intensity. Yet, as Umba emphasises throughout the show, the association between Colombia and the drug trade is as omnipresent as ever. Stardust is one small fissure in the chain linking cocaine consumers, narco stereotypes and the damage to Colombia’s rural communities, but at least it’s a start.
Stardust is on at Pleasance until 27th August. More info here.