Review: A Small Place (Gate Theatre)
Jamaica Kincaid's essay about the ramifications of colonialism is adapted for the stage
There's a moment about two-thirds of the way through A Small Place where the ceiling fans in the Gate Theatre are turned on. On any other day in the theatre the idea of a blast of cold air in a packed room may feel like a relief but, accompanied by a change in Johanne Jensen's lighting, all of a sudden the space feels icy cold.
The change in state matches the change of tone within Jamaica Kincaid's iconic 1988 essay A Small Place (originally a letter she had penned to her editor at the New Yorker, William Shawn), concerned with the then-present circumstances of Antigua. Initially imagining a hypothetical Western ('North American, or worse, European') tourist arriving on the island, Kincaid whimsically embarks on an attack on Western prejudices and how all the novelties of a touristic experience mask neo-colonial realities hidden beneath them. The essay slowly transitions, just like the temperature in the room, from cosier hypothetical to cold hard facts – explicitly calling out the modern day corruption in Antigua in the aftermath of colonial occupation.
Adapted for the stage by Anna Himali Howard (who also directs) alongside Season Butler, the live adaptation preserves the vast majority of Kincaid's original, embellished by the neat tricks of Camilla Clarke's staging yet never losing its cutting edge or relevance. Though described as an essay, Kincaid's piece has some brilliantly poetic, charged imagery – tourists are directly labelled 'a nice blob just sitting like a boob in your amniotic sack of the modern experience'.
It's performed as a two-hander by Cherrelle Skeete and Nicola Alexis, each divvying up Kincaid's words and the history of Antigua between them. The pair seem to, though Himali Howard never makes it all that explicit, reflect differing perspectives on the subject – Skeete the younger, more hot-headed narrator, while Alexis reaching a measured, calculated rage as the piece progresses. The sustained control, never overstated until needs be, is palpable.
At one point while speaking Skeete unravels a loom of red cotton, getting audience members to hold it, like tracing pins, shipping routes on a map. The legacy of the slave trade hangs over the show, just like it does Antigua. As Kincaid puts it, 'people speak of emancipation as if it just happened the other day.'
Antigua is, in Kincaid's words, a small place, grappling with the impact of a major earthquake, as well as the sustained aftershocks of colonial rule. Does the piece land as well live as it does on the page? Perhaps not, and certain moments definitely feel more like oration than performance, but it remains as relevant as ever.