Theatre can engage audiences with key events in Black History, uncover previously unheard voices and encourage discussions around issues. It can challenge our conventional views on history and ask difficult questions about the past and society now. Dr Holly Maples and Professor Jeremy Krikler have worked on different projects looking at aspects of Black British history.

Dr Holly Maples: Breaking the Silence  

In November 2019, i worked with historian Inge Dornan to create an immersive heritage performance at St John’s Church Hillingdon. Designed to raise awareness of 18th Century slave trade and Black British Abolitionists in Britain for the Being Human Festival, the production received Arts Council Funding in 2021 to tour 10 historic churches with direct ties to the slave trade, British abolitionist movement, and the graves of formerly enslaved servants.

Breaking the Silence was a part of a larger trend of performances in the UK addressing and challenging the United Kingdom’s dark history as a leader of the 18th century slave trade. Performing to the local community and school groups across the country, the production reframed the narrative of British abolition from one of Parliamentarian leadership, to a collective grassroots movement championed by under-represented voices particularly erased from popular historical narratives because of their gender and/or race.

Advocates argue that re-framing past narratives of colonial British history and celebrating many figures of black leadership from the past, challenges fixed notions of identity built on race and ethnicity (Olusoga, 2016). By featuring formerly enslaved 18th century figures, like Mary Prince and Olaudah Equiano, who published popular slave narratives to further the abolitionist movement, our production hoped to inform audiences of overlooked leaders of the movement. As one Black British audience member of Breaking the Silence stated, ‘I’ve lived in Hillingdon all my life, seeing people like Mary Prince, this is the first time I’ve felt I belonged’ (Being Human evaluation report 2019).

By integrating the story of the production, with the history of the audience, Breaking the Silence replicated the Abolitionist agenda of inspiring debates of personal responsibility, testimony, confession, and personal narratives to be shared, and reflected upon, as political acts of social and racial justice. 

Professor Jeremy Krikler: A Peril of the Sea

My play A Peril of the Sea, emerged out of my research into the eighteenth century slave trade. The play was staged at the Lakeside Theatre at the University of Essex's Colchester Campus and the Bloomsbury Theatre in London in December 2016 and was published by Methuen Press in 2019.

The play deals with what might be considered one of the original ‘Black Lives Matter’ moments – the atrocity aboard  the slave ship Zong in 1781 when over 133 slaves were put to death and insurance later claimed on them. The case became important to the activists of the early abolitionist movement: the famed black abolitionist, Gustava Vassa – better known as Equiano – was central to alerting the movement to the case.

Inspired but also disciplined by the historical documents, my play reimagines the events on the Zong and the logic operating in the mind and world of Lord Chief Justice Mansfield, the judge who adjudicated in the case and who refused to consider it as one of murder. In fact, Lord Mansfield’s niece Dido was herself the child of a slave and lived with and cared for Mansfield. In the play, I have transformed her actual relationship with Mansfield so that the theatrical Dido can elicit the inhumanity and hypocrisy at the heart of the Lord Chief Justice’s approach to the Zong massacre. 

A Peril of the Sea  has been performed for general audiences and it has also taken the difficult questions it explores into the teaching of secondary school students and into the training of teachers.