By: Cathryn Macey, TRP Blogger
April’s big TRP takeover is proof that the most powerful lessons are from the mouths of those who refuse to be marginalised. That’s right. No textbook, internet search or film can replace the important messages about colonisation and slavery The Wampanoag shared with Plymouth audiences last week.
If you don’t know who The Wampanoag are, they are a group of Native representatives from North America. Also known as “People of the First Light”, The Wampanoag helped the Pilgrims to successfully harvest their first set of crops. Before this intervention from The Wampanoag in 1621, many of the settlers that set sail from The Barbican in 1620 were dying and their future looked uncertain.
It is alarming that this important side of the story about a key historical event linked to our city is still, to a large extent, muted. Sure, there is plaque by the Mayflower steps acknowledging the damage caused by colonialism, but this isn’t enough.
In America, the situation is similar. The Washington Post report that out of the 1.5 million visitors to Plymouth’s Museum and souvenir shops, just 800 take the time to see The Mashpee Wampanoag Museum.
So how can we change this important conversation about the reality behind those cosy, misleading images of Thanksgiving?
The Wampanoag’s TRP take over feels like one big step in the right direction.
Exploring the cast’s important point of view could have been a shameful experience for a local audience; after all, the English people that colonised Native American culture set sail from some small steps just a 10-minute walk away from The Lyric stage.
Rather incredibly, during Sunday’s sold-out performance of We Are The Land, the prevailing emotion of the evening was not one of sadness or embarrassment, but one of immense admiration for this group of people who, despite centuries of oppression, were warm and welcoming and keen to show that the hell they had been through had not quashed their collective spirit. In fact, by the end of the performance, strength and hope positively radiated from every single one of the cast member’s faces.
Admittedly though, overall, it was a hard watch. And it had to be. The contrast between the calm, spiritual start of the performance, for example, and the destructive arrival of the Pilgrims (played with aplomb by The Peoples’ Company) was harrowing. For long passages of time during the play’s exposition, nothing could be heard but the soft crackle of the campfire and the gentle lapping of the waves against the shore.
Big boots soon trampled over the peaceful, content scene the Wampanoag had so tenderly re-created before white flags were laid over the dead bodies of the Native Americans by the English settlers. Moments like this brought their story to life and added context to the individual tales told throughout the play. These tales focused on the divisions caused by colonisation, conflict, and the introduction of Christianity.
Beyond doubt, the best parts of We Are The Land were the personal autobiographical monologues each cast member delivered. At times, members of the Wampanoag family had to take a few moments to compose themselves, but this was understandable. They were baring their souls and finally getting to tell their truth; potentially to the ancestors of their oppressors.
Perhaps most strikingly, We Are The Land made me painfully aware that the impact of colonisation on communities like Wampanoag is continuing now. Still. In 2023. These important conversations about the past and the present need to carry on and I have absolutely no doubt that this is just the beginning for The Wampanoag’s mission to share their story with the world.
This spirit of optimism against all odds spilled over to their final fixture; a chilled, calm affair in The Drum. Wampanoag Takeover: An evening of Wampanoag Music and Spoken Word was like a wrap party and many of the cast from Sunday’s performance strutted to their prominent seats just in front of the production desk above the stage.
All eyes were on them as members of the audience recognised them from their big performance earlier in the week. There to cheer on and whoop at the four members of the group performing again, they sat dressed casually in jeans and t shirts; visibly relaxed and comfortable as their successful, sell-out takeover drew slowly to a close.
The atmosphere in The Drum was electric. You got the impression most people there had dipped in and out of the series of talks, events, and performances The Wampanoag had put on over the course of the week. This resulted in an intimate vibe; we now knew this community and their story and hopefully, they had got to know us too.
I can’t quite put my finger on it but the experience felt similar to meeting long lost members of your family and then saying farewell. It was warm, joyful and full of the spirit and soul they seem to have in abundance.
Each of the four performers had different talents. Jasmine sang with a crisp, haunting and emotionally charged voice; her thick, long hair tumbling to the ground as she sat perched in front of a starry sky. There was something utterly spell binding about her performance which stood out as a highlight of this special evening.
Melvin carried on from where he left on Sunday delivering some adrenalin fuelled spoken word songs about the generational trauma caused by colonisation. These darker moments in an otherwise relaxed evening served as a reminder of why we were all really here – to acknowledge the unheard stories of this fascinating community.
The best moments in what was essentially a jamming session between four friends, were the spontaneous ones. At one point, the musicians all started to freestyle with percussion instruments. Impressively, their timing was totally in sync, and they uncovered to their audience their unbreakable bond which had survived years of unwanted interference.
A wonderful evening which capped off a wonderful week.