This August the lost voices of 18th century Black revolutionaries will be uncovered in The Ancestors, a brand new theatrical collaboration between the National Youth Theatre, the University of Warwick, and Shout Out Loud, English Heritage’s national youth engagement programme.
The new work, to be performed outdoors at Portchester Castle in Hampshire this summer, is a response to a colonial and racist production performed at the castle by French captives in the early 19th century. With a fresh perspective on the history of Portchester’s Black prisoners of war and the Caribbean uprisings, The Ancestors re-examines the past and offers a new voice to the people involved.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries Portchester Castle served as a prisoner-of-war depot for soldiers captured by British forces during the Napoleonic wars. In 1807, a play entitled The Revolutionary Philanthropist or Slaughter on Haiti was performed by prisoners of war aboard a prison ship in the shadow of the castle – the play, set in 1793, tackled the incendiary topic of the uprising of enslaved people in the Caribbean, but was told from the colonial perspective and was steeped in racist attitudes.
The Ancestors will theatrically retell the narratives of people captured and held at Portchester to create a “decolonised” site-specific new play in response to the legacy of Caribbean uprisings and the experience of Black prisoners of war and enslaved people of African descent. Audiences will discover the stories of a number of characters from history – a clique of Caribbean maroon warrior women; a general of Haiti and his right-hand man; an ex enslaved couple reclaiming their land; a group of Black French Caribbean soldiers held captive in Portchester, and their wives travelling across the Atlantic to be reunited with them.
Staged and created with a cast made up of exciting new talent drawn from the local area and around the UK, this dynamic site-specific production will explore place, power and freedom in promenade performances throughout the castle grounds. The female-led production is written by Lakesha Arie-Angelo (Graveyard Gang; Tamasha Theatre’s associate company; Purple Moon Drama) and directed by Jade Lewis (Superhoe for Royal Court Theatre), The play will focus on the lost voices of women, with a particular spotlight on Black women, and has been developed with the writer alongside a group Black female-identifying NYT members, local participants and director Mumba Dodwell through on-going R&D sessions.
Anna Eavis, Curatorial Director at English Heritage comments: We are thrilled to work with the National Youth Theatre on such an inspiring project. English Heritage is committed to telling the history of England in full – and at Portchester that means the stories of the thousands of Black Caribbean prisoners held there during the Napoleonic wars. Our work with the University of Warwick has revealed more about their lives and we hope this play will give these prisoners the voices they were denied during their time at the castle.
Paul Roseby, CEO and Artistic Director of National Youth Theatre, said: After our award-winning collaboration in 2019 we’re teaming up with English Heritage again to uncover another important story from our buried past. The Ancestors will shine a light on vital lost voices and will be beautifully and poetically brought to life. The urgency of this work is sadly more poignant than ever before.
The best-preserved Roman fort in northern Europe, Portchester Castle was in use for more than 1,000 years, and has a somewhat surprising history as a prisoner-of-war depot for soldiers captured by British forces during the Napoleonic wars of the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1796, more than 2,000 Black Caribbean prisoners of war were held at Portchester, including more than 100 women and children. The new play will shine a new light on the lives of the prisoners of war held at Portchester Castle and offer an important window into England’s story.