Producer, director and writer JD Douglas’ latest production, ‘A Chatham Conversation’ has become a must see show after it left audiences marvelling on an ingenious idea with lots of food for thought.
A Chatham Conservation was commissioned by the Historic Dock Yard Chatham, as part of their 150 Years Command of the Oceans Celebration. Douglas’ idea incorporates a conversation with three historical men who had a connection to the land mark town of Chatham, and the Dock Yard. Olaudah Equiano, the celebrated former slave who was one of the first to write his memories, William Cuffay a leading Chartist who fought for universal suffrage and in real life was deported to Australia for his activism. And Sir Charles Bullen a Commissioner of Chatham Dock Yards. The play is set before the Abolition of Slavery and the granting of the vote for working men.
Set in the early 1830s Commissioner Bullen wants to engage two men as the writer puts it, “not known for their devotion without question, and obedience without reasoned argument”. With that in mind the plot thickens when Equiano and Cuffay find out that that the meeting is called with a request. Without giving too much away, Bullen’s request will force both Equiano and Cuffay to go against all their life long principles.
Douglas set the play at the Commissioner’s House at the Historic Dock Yard Chatham and had the pleasure of staging the show where it’s set. In terms of site specific magic, when Equiano refers to the Commissioner’s Garden and some of the items like one of the first Italianate Fountain ever in Britain, and the Mullberry tree under which Oliver Cromwell is recorded to have stood, the audience seem to be taken back in time.
Vicky Price who commissioned the play on behalf of Chatham Historic Dockyard, must be commended for all her efforts. She has helped give birth to a project that will be around for a very long time.
A Chatham Conversation became a talking point as the audience walked into the bar after the show. Among the celebrities and theatre royalty in attendance, were Joseph Marcell, legendry Jamaican show man Count Prince Miller, theatre director Joe Charles and his wife, Maria Vigouroux mother of former Liverpool goal keeper, Lawrence Vigouroux, currently at Swindon Town, and Dr. Morgan Dalphinis, cultural icon and author among many. The celebrated Australian painter Jamie Boyd of the famous Boyd dynasty of Painters, was in attendance to support his son Merric who played the role of Commissioner Charles Bullen. The two other actors were Errol Hines – William Cuffay, and the author as Equiano.
All three actors gave engaging performances, bringing out the many arguments and different points of views with passion and humour when needed. Douglas’ ‘A Chatham Conversation’ is written with enough ideas and arguments, that compels the audience to go beyond being a passive bystander.
A debate about sexism and feminism is neatly fused in, when William Cuffay, asks the Commissioner why is there a sign on the Ropery Door that says’ Women’s Entrance’. What follows is a debate on why designated signs tend to have a negative association. As Cuffay says. “I have seen Cattle Entrance, Prisoners Entrance, Tradesman Entrance, and now Women’s Entrance. Why no Gentlemen or Shipwright Entrance signs?”. That led to a bigger debate on women’s life in the work place. A topic that seems to be constantly in the news these days.
The play is set in the 1830s to 1840s and opens a dialogue on how far we have come or rather how much further we have to go, on some social issues.
A Recurring Conversation
In the Spring of this year the House of Lords had a major debate on feminism. In September this year, a month before the play opened Kevin Roberts, the Executive Chairman of Saachi and Saachi, resigned his post for what was deemed sexist comments in relation to women’s aspirations. Not to mention the tone of some of the comments thrown around during the US election and those directed at the first woman daring to break the glass ceiling barring the highest office.
All three stage characters, Bullen, Cuffay, and Equiano are drawn from the true life biographies of their real persona, hence making interesting and contrasting conversation. When Commissioner Charles Bullen tells Equiano that he was paid £3,000 and awarded a gold medal, for his war efforts at the battle of Trafalgar, he asks Equiano what of his own war efforts. Equiano replies that he was a powder monkey on the famous war ship the Namur, served for two and a half years and was paid sixpence. The contrast of both men’s rewards and station in life while contributing to the perpetuation of Empire is most revealing and creates wonderful dramatic tension.
When Equiano boasts that his soul conspirator William Cuffay is the most mentioned Chartist in the pages of the satirical magazine Punch, Bullen retorts……”and never without derision and ridicule”.
The witty dialogue was worth the admission price alone. One of the classic lines in the production is delivered by Merric Boyd with the timing of a seasoned comedian. Equiano mentions the annual Chartist dinner to celebrate the birth of Thomas Paine, author of The Rights of Man. Bullen’s reply…”Yes I can see that men at a Thomas Paine dinner, celebrating rights they have not got,” brought the house down.
Those versed in the work of JD Douglas were not disappointed in his historical observation, as demonstrated in his seminal work Black Heroes In the Hall of Fame, (Co-producer and writer) and JA Story (writer and director) to name two. He has the ability to bring unconnected information to the fore with the slight hands of a magician.
A discussion on one of Commissioner Charles Bullen’s heroes Admiral Rodney, ties in with the final chapter of what was known as the battle of the Saints, which started in St. Lucia and led to the Treaty of Paris, and finally America’s Independence. And to tie up that gem nicely Bullen adds “And within seventeen months.”
Bringing in the naval base on Pigeon Point on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, and how it contributed to world events was a timely reminder, of the debt owed by England to her former colonies. Yes indeed 150 years of Command of the Oceans has its tentacles in faraway shores. Important that these narratives are shared by those whose fore fathers, wittingly or unwittingly contributed to what helped make Britain.
For all of the above and more, A Chatham Conversation has now become a talking point for being a very clever, interesting and conversational piece of theatre. Catch it if you can.