(24th March 2007)
Devised and performed by the London Shakespeare Workout (LWS) and based
upon George McDonald Fraser’s novel Black Ajax, Black Atlas commemorates
the bicentennial of the signing of the Slave Trade Act.
The flier details say it tells the tale of two slaves – one literate
and British, another from Africa. This is slightly misleading –
what it actually tells is the tale of an American slave who wins his freedom
in a boxing match and travels to regency England, where he is trained
and egged on to fight by another black man. Due to his difference of bearing,
Black Atlas is unable to recognise this man as a fellow freed slave, as
a fellow black man. The revelation he is a former slave who has been brought
up with a trade and educated by a British pro-Abolitionist reveals the
violence done to the black man’s self-image, the result of the recurrent
prejudice displayed by every type and class of white man in the play –
excepting his nemesis, the champion miller Tom Cribb.
The logistics of the performance are quite startling: an all male cast
of 8 members (3 black, 5 white, if you must know), including the Director/Narrator;
no props, excepting a bell and two candlestick holders which are used
once; chairs for seven audience members block off the stage left and right
– seats for six actors along the back make up the boxing ring set;
costumes consisting of white t-shirts, black jeans and one regency style
coat which Black Atlas aka Tom Molyneaux briefly dons.
The phenomenal original score is improvised and performed afresh each
recital by Tim Williams and his musical contraptions, visible from the
side of the stage. The geographically disparate narrative structure is
melded together by song. Accent locates the scene. Music conveys the mood.
It’s all very simple. And powerful. And intense. Horrifying. Mesmeric.
The lesson of the ending seems to be that Black Atlas’ ambitions
and efforts, as well as those of the play, are just not enough. But in
their own turn and time they have both lit candles and illuminated the
world a little better.