Maroon Queen, Tristan Bates Theatre – Preview

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At its height, the British Empire covered a quarter of the world, touching many different cultures. However, asides from the material resources which were exported back the ‘mother country’, nothing about the history and culture of ‘the Commonwealth’ has ever been taught in British schools, or what Britain’s past relationship was with the former colonies. There is a saying that present-day Britain doesn’t understand why so many former colonies have misgivings about the past, and they in turn don’t understand why British people don’t know or understand their mutual history. In case of some territories, they were passed around between the various slave-owning countries of western Europe. Once such place was Mauritius, an island nation formerly owned by the Dutch, French and British, and the setting for Ariane Barnes’ play Maroon Queen.

Set for the most part in 1834, Maroon Queen is based upon a true event that is seldom spoken of. From the little that we know, the ‘official’ British interpretation of events and what’s said within indigenous oral history is very different. Barnes plays the central figure of the Maroon Queen – an independent woman who is both ‘warrior’ and ‘shamen’. In her world, where in everyday life cultures bleed into each other, the ‘world beyond’ is also a familiar neighbour and the ebb-and-flow of ‘magic’ is as much a ‘natural presence’ as the tide.

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At the very beginning of the play, the audience is confronted with a travel brochure-esque advert for Mauritius. Portraying the stereotypical ‘exotic woman’, we see Barnes wearing a rose in her ‘pristine’ hair and white clothing – a million miles away from the self-image of the Maroon Queen. Breaking the fourth wall, Barnes as ‘the Queen’ addresses the audience and points out the disparity between the stereotypes of the ‘exotic woman’ and ‘the real thing’.

One of the cornerstones of any culture is language and how it’s used. Because Mauritius is a cultural melting pot, it has a smorgasbord of influences and through the Maroon Queen we learn there is a directness in their way of speaking, without deceit or ambiguity. Also, because of the many cultures, the Maroon Queen uses words – or even short conversations – with other characters in the play that reflect the international influence on everyday speech. In addition, music and songs inspired by the era convey the rhythm and spirit of yesteryear, echoing through to the present.

Much of the early part of the show revolves around ‘the Queen’s’ own story and Mauritian culture in general. Later, it hinges on one evening that’s life-changing for one particular woman and the rest of the community. Asked to intercede in the matter, the Maroon Queen is the only ‘calm’ presence in the village. But if she doesn’t succeed in assauging their anger, there will be grave consequences…

Following the half-hour excerpt, a Q&A session was held, exploring the themes of the play and the aspects of it that resonated. Many things were said, but it’s agreed one of the most exciting things about this project is that it’s told from a woman’s perspective – something seldom heard of for any event before the 20th century. The show also has the distinction of addressing the most ‘invisible’ of the ethnic minorities in history books – people of mixed race in ‘the colonies’…

I expect the full-length version will be performed in the near future, so watch this space…

© Michael Davis 2018

The preview of Maroon Queen ran at Tristan Bates Theatre on 11th and 12th of October as part of the Blacktress season.

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