Sunday, May 6, 2012

"The Cambria" - A HIFA Highlight

Scars of a whipped slave (April 2, 1863, Baton...
Scars of a whipped slave (April 2, 1863, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA. Original caption: "Overseer Artayou Carrier whipped me. I was two months in bed sore from the whipping. My master come after I was whipped; he discharged the overseer. The very words of poor Peter, taken as he sat for his picture." (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. located in K...
Statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. located in Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham, Alabama. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today is the final day of the 2012 Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA).  This year’s festival has been marked by some first-rate performances, domestic and international, and the closing day is usually the day the headline acts show their best.  For me, though, the highlight of HIFA is an Irish play, The Cambria, which tells of the American abolitionist and escaped slave Frederick Douglas’s flight to Ireland and England in August 1847 aboard The Cambria, a paddle steamer that was the flagship of the Cunard Line.

Douglas was an escaped slave, subject to being captured and returned to bondage, but when his famous and popular biography was published, making him a potent symbol of the northern abolitionist movement, slaveholders put a large bounty on his head – dead or alive.  Supporters assisted him in getting passage on The Cambria, where he traveled under an assumed name.  In England and Ireland, he appeared as a speaker, sharing the podium with the noted anti-slavery activist Daniel O’Connell.  In a letter Douglas wrote from Ireland in 1845, he said, “. . . people here in Ireland measure and esteem men according to their moral and intellectual worth, and not according to the colour of their skin.”  This is also the closing line of the play, and for history buffs, the similarity to Dr Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I have a dream that one day in America, people will be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin,” resonates in a deeply stirring manner.

Writer-performer Donal O’Kelly and performer Sorcha Fox give absolutely stunning performances as they play multiple roles, transporting audiences to the decks, cabins, and holds of The Cambria, complete with the ominous fog of the North Atlantic.  Due to an foot injury Fox suffered after coming to Harare, making it difficult for her to walk, last minute adjustments had to be made with the two seated throughout the two-act play.  If I hadn’t been told this I would never have known. 

The essence of good drama, as with good writing, is getting an audience to suspend disbelief.  O’Kelly and Fox are masters at doing this.  The transformation as O’Kelly switches from Douglas, a black character, to the slave owner Dodd, is nothing short of magical, and Fox plays adult and child characters effectively, and even comes across credibly when she’s representing male characters.

Only someone with a heart of granite could sit through this performance without being moved – to tears even – so profound is the story and so flawless the acting.  This is Irish drama at its very best; great script, good direction, but most of all, top level performances by two of Ireland’s finest.  The Cambria has played to rave reviews on the New York stage, and now it has come to Harare and HIFA.  Five stars to the performers, five stars to the material, and thanks to the organizers who had the foresight to bring this great play here.

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