By Selina Thompson. Directed by Dawn Walton. A Selina Thompson production, presented by the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. At the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre on Thursday, January 24. Continues until January 26.
At the beginning of salt., Birmingham, U.K.–based writer-performer Selina Thompson looks out to the audience and says simply: “I am 28, I am black, I am a woman.”
Simple facts, but they determine so much of her experience. The adopted daughter of parents who immigrated from the Caribbean has heard “Where are you really from?” far too often. “In my head, I will flip over a table,” she comments, “but out loud, I’ll say ‘Jamaica.’”
Yet the answer never feels adequate. The Europe she calls home is “built on suffering, death, and massacre”; everyone in her family is descended from enslaved people.
So Thompson decided in 2013 to embark on a journey around the transatlantic slave trade’s central triangle of Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean, an experience that forms the central narrative of salt. The horrors of her story aren’t all historical. A visit to Ghana’s Elmina Castle, where African slaves were held captive before transport overseas, is disturbing, but so is the overt racism of the captain on whose ship Thompson sails.
Thompson pushes back against that racism in a powerful sequence in which she takes a sledgehammer to a slab of rock salt. “This is the Company. This is racism, imperialism, capitalism,” she intones as she smashes the rock into powder, a visceral expression of righteous fury.
Under Dawn Walton’s direction, Thompson is an engaging and natural storyteller with keen poetic instincts. “Europe pushes against me; I push back” is the refrain in her catalogue of racist incidents spanning a period of years. Her resistance is only part of what gives her hope; there’s also the healing strength she draws from family, like the easy playfulness in her relationship with her father, and from the vibrant natural landscape of Jamaica. But the narrative feels a bit disjointed; we aren’t always grounded in specific scenes.
Some of the intimacy of salt. is also lost in the cavernous Roundhouse, both in terms of sound (Thompson is much easier to hear when she’s using a microphone, which she only does occasionally) and sight lines (the downstage action isn’t visible from the upper half of the house). That’s a shame, because so much of our world is still defined by the injustices Thompson illuminates. As she says, “I refuse to get over what is not yet over.”