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The Lamplighter (BBC Radio 3)

Narrated by: Martina Laird, Aicha Kossoko, Clare Perkins and Mona Hammond
Producer: Pam Fraser Solomon
Date: Sunday 25 March 2007
Time: 7.30pm

The Lamplighter is a drama written by the poet Jackie Kay which weaves together the narratives of four women, Constance, Mary, Black Harriot and the Lamplighter. This drama focuses on the experiences of these women, of capture, enslavement, resistance and survival. Kay has used historical records of enslaved women to create these narratives which interact with other narratives of slave owners and those complicit in the slave trade.

The drama places the experience of these women as representative of those who suffered and died in the Atlantic slave trade and whose histories have been engulfed by silence. The voices of these women are used to stand for those whose voice has been lost. The absence of these perspectives is constantly reiterated, 'this is herself talking. This is me talking. Nobody knows what I went through...' Loss, memory, forgetting and remembering are covered in these narratives. The loss of a homeland, of family, of freedom, of identity and agency is powerfully evoked in the drama. Constance is forced to give up her beloved three year-old daughter to the auction block. The hand of her daughter is wrenched from her own leaving Constance inconsolable. The memory of her child however aids her survival, and it is this capacity of memory which is often turned to. Memory is given paramount concern as it is through memory that these women survive for themselves and for us. The audience is implored that these stories will not be forgotten, 'don't forget to remember me. My voice is coming back.' Remembering these women, remembering their suffering, their survival, becomes a means of remembering the wider issues of enslavement. Resistance to the slave owners is prominent in these stories; the women recall and relate stories of escape, revolts, wars as well as acts of everyday resistance. In effect the drama performs an archaeology of the memory of the enslaved and oppressed. It designates those who have been silenced with an identity and a past as well as a role in the present and future.

One of the most interesting aspects of The Lamplighter is the way in which the body of the enslaved is a principal feature. The drama uses the historical records to write a new 'embodied history.' The sensuous experiences of the past are called into being; weight, space, pain and hunger are all utilised to cement what have been previously ephemeral histories into undeniable realities. One character remarks, 'slavery, the feel of it...' This corporeal perspective is used especially well in relaying the sexual exploitation of enslaved women, statements describing rape, assault and violence are demanded to be heard. The fear is that without this scream of existence and demand for validation the past will be lost once again. The Lamplighter provides a perspective on the ending of the slave trade from those were enslaved themselves. The crass hypocrisy of Britain, a slave-trading nation abolishing the trade from which it's grown fat is laid bare. The role of the British government and British institutions in the trade are highlighted and the profits which the country gained are categorically stated: enslaved Africans have provided the wealth and consumables which made Britain. One of the characters can be heard in the background singing, 'Glasgow belongs to me...Bristol belongs to me.' The drama makes the issue clear, modern Britain was made on the backs of enslaved Africans. As Black Harriot states, 'My story is the story of Great Britain.'

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