Winsome Pinnock’s amazing new play Rockets and Blue Lights now on at the National Theatre play, asks who owns our past and who has the right to tell its stories?
Winner of the 2018 Alfred Fagon Award, Pinnock’s bold and complex play was inspired by a JMW Turner painting, The Slave Ship, based on the notorious Zong massacre of 1781. Rockets and Blue Lights retells British history through the stories of several black Britons interconnecting with the slave trade and explores how narratives about slavery often focus on white guilt or denial.
The throbbing rhythmic drumbeats of a sea shanty that also conjures up images of slaves working in fields, opens Rockets and Blue Lights and sets the tone of the play. In a museum housed in the reproduction a slave ship, two women, Lou, and Essie, stand looking at the Turner painting, The Slave Ship. The painting depicts a ship foundering in a turbulent sea –a typical Turner seascape, but we, the audience, only see the painting through the women’s description. They must look closely to see the real horror of the scene, the drowning figures of slaves still shackled in irons thrown overboard, forcing Kiza Deen’s Lou to ask Rochelle Rose’s Essie, ‘Why does he make something so ugly, beautiful?
Set in two-time periods, it bounces between centuries, straddling time, melding fact with fiction, past with present, giving voice to those whose story has been lost to history. In twenty-first-century London, Essie, a black teacher is trying to get Billie (Anthony Aje), her belligerent teenage student, to engage with his history and Britain’s part in the Atlantic slave-trade. Lou, is the glamorous British star of a US sci-fi series, cast as Olu, an enslaved African woman in a film about Turner. She fights to keep Olu’s story complete when the film’s focus moves from the enslaved to the white abolitionists.
In Victorian England, Turner (Paul Bradley) seeks artistic inspiration in a half-remembered story; Thomas, (Karl Collins) a Black Englishman longs for the sea and prepares to take one last voyage, against the wishes of his wife Lucy, (Rochelle Rose) and his daughter Jess (Kudzai Sitima); Meg, (Cathy Tyson) a former enslaved woman tries to live without fear.
Pinnock’s writing is expansive, funny, and sad, with great depth, the imagery brilliantly magnified. She sets out many situations in the first half, then brings them all together with some hard hits in the second half. The scenes are underscored by Femi Temowo’s evocative music and Laura Hopkins’ design, the washed bare board, with ankle deep water ebbing and flowing against the shore, becomes a common recurrence in the play.
When Thomas talks of how the sea has swallowed ancient worlds alive and one day, she’ll belch them out again, we remember the many men women and children, captured, sold, and killed, crossing the oceans. We think too of Britain’s involvement in the slave trade and its re-emergence lately in the Windrush scandal and Black Lives Matter protests.
Miranda Cromwell’s production infuses a ghostlike element throughout. Scenes glide into scenes in dreamlike slow motion, figures drift in and out, weaving narrative strands together. One of the best scenes is the dance sequence that overlaps and switches between the 19th and 21st centuries.
There are strong performances from the cast, especially from Deen, excellent as Lou, Rose in dual roles is funny, warm, and gut-wrenchingly moving. The end speech by Thomas (Karl Collins) is passionate and though a little contrived, reminds us of more recent examples of racist murder, exposing the dreadful truth that nothing much has changed between then and now. A play definitely worth seeing!!
ROCKETS AND BLUE LIGHTS by Winsome Pinnock DIRECTOR – Miranda Cromwell DESIGNER – Laura Hopkins LIGHTING DESIGNER – Amy Mae Original Lighting Designer – Jessica Hung Han Yun SOUND DESIGNER – Elena Peña MOVEMENT DIRECTOR – Annie-Lunette Deakin-Foster FIGHT DIRECTOR – Yarit Dor ASSOCIATE SET and COSTUME DESIGNER – Charlotte Henery DIALECT COACH – Hazel Holder COMPOSER + MUSICAL DIRECTOR – Femi Temowo STAFF DIRECTOR – Mumba Dodwell ANTHONY AJE – Billie PAUL BRADLEY – Turner; Roy; Peter Piper KARL COLLINS – Thomas; Trevor KIZA DEEN – Lou; Olu DAVID RAWLINS – Understudy Thomas/Trevor ROCHELLE ROSE – Essie; Lucy MATTHEW SEADON-YOUNG – Ruskin; Johnson; Decker HANNAH SINCLAIR ROBINSON – Understudy Lou/Olu KUDZAI SITIMA – Jess/Jeanie CATHY TYSON – Danby; Mary; Meg; Shona EVERAL A WALSH – Clarke; Pearson; Benjamin LUKE WILSON- Caesar; Reuben
Anni Domingo is a writer, actress, lecturer, director, and MA graduate of Anglia Ruskin Creative Writing. Her poems and short stories have been published in various anthologies.
Rockets and Blue Lights
A co-production with the Royal Exchange Theatre by Winsome Pinnock
25 August – 9 October
Running Time: approx 2 hours 20 mins inc. interval BOOK TICKETS