salt.: how history fits on contemporary bodies

DICK-DAVENPORTWriter/performer Selina Thompson slams it in salt. (Photo by Dick Davenport)

At the beginning of her autobiographical solo show salt., Selina Thompson says, “I’m 28. I’m black. I’m a woman.” I’m 66, white, and a man and those realities will have a huge impact on how I interpret Thompson’s work.*

The realities of everyday racism still shock me, for instance. Near the top of salt., Thompson relates a story about her grandmother, who was told as a little girl—by her schoolteacher—that black people have darker skin because they are lazy and dirty in God’s eyes. Decades later, a little boy in a Bristol café points Thompson out as a nigger and, although she was born in Birmingham and lives in England, she still fields endless questions about where she is “really” from.

The concreteness of this material made it some of the most affecting in the script for me.

Then, in a way, Thompson sets out to experience where she is “really” from. The body of salt. is about a journey that she took in 2013: to explore the history of slavery and its impact on her life, she traveled by cargo ship from Belgium to Ghana, then on to Jamaica and back to the UK.

For me, the most interesting thing about this trip is that it failed to produce the desired results. Her visit to Elmina Castle in Ghana, a building that played a major role in the slave trade, is not cathartic, for instance. As she puts it, “residual trauma is not the same as experienced trauma.” When she’s in Elmina, “It’s all wrong”; she wants to be home in Birmingham at her grandmother’s funeral. As I understand this, Thompson is bearing witness to the reality that her search for emotional resolution through historical exploration can have limited success at best.

Thompson also enters other intriguing grey zones. She comes to realize that her identity is a hybrid: she has inherited both the cruelty of colonialism and some of its benefits—and she isn’t quite sure how to deal with the “gift” of living in the privileged culture of Europe.

Still, I grew restless as salt. progressed because, at its heart, salt. is about an abstract intellectual quest and Thompson doesn’t do a great job of focusing that quest or grounding it in events, locations, and relationships. She stays largely in her head. I started the evening completely engaged with the material, then wandered away from it as its abstraction—and Thompson’s repetitive cadence—wore me down.

That said, there are rituals in salt. that root it as a theatrical experience.

In the central physical metaphor, Thompson takes a sledgehammer to a block of salt. A capacious symbol, salt evokes all sorts of things including oceans, tears, wounds, sweat, preservation, buoyancy, and healing. And then there’s the vicarious release of watching Thompson smash the salt rocks to smithereens.

Directed by Dawn Walton and designed by Katherina Radeva, salt. enjoys a handsome physical production. Video clips and other imagery show up on a tall rectangular screen and the microphone that Thompson speaks into sometimes provides aural variety. For me, the sound design by Sleepdogs Collective is too insistent.

I wish its narrative were more thoroughly embodied, but ultimately I’m grateful for the skillfulness and insights of salt.—and for Thompson’s generous, engaging onstage presence.

SALT by Selina Thompson. Directed by Dawn Walton. At the Roundhouse as part of the PuSh Festival on Thursday, January 24.  Continues until January 27. Tickets.

* If you’re a person of colour and you’re interested in writing about theatre, let me know. I’m happy to help if I can.


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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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