Created and performed by Selina Thompson. Directed by Dawn Walton. Feb. 7 to 10 at the Toronto Centre for the Performing Arts, 5040 Yonge St. TOCentre.com or 416-250-3708
British writer and performer Selina Thompson so impressed audiences with Race Cards at last year’s Progress Festival that she was quickly invited to return this year. This time, she brought her solo performance salt.
It ran from Jan. 31 to Feb. 2 at Progress but, luckily for anyone who missed this brief run, it’s moving uptown to the Toronto Centre for the Performing Arts this week.
And I mean lucky — it’s rare to see an hour-long show so affecting in text, physical movements and a scope that encompasses hundreds of years, many miles and several generations but feels intimate, immediate and personal.
The Toronto Centre for the Performing Arts can feel a little out of the way, but there can be no complaints about a long journey that ends face to face with Thompson.
Salt was born out of her decision to trace the Transatlantic Slave Triangle route from the U.K. to Ghana to Jamaica via cargo ship and plane in 2016. The story really begins with Thompson herself, whose birth parents immigrated to Birmingham, England, from Jamaica, and whose adopted parents are from Montserrat and Jamaica. It continues at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2014, a.k.a. “where white men shout at (her) about their pain” while the stories of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and Michael Brown take over her social media.
There is no conclusion to this story of colonialism, history and racialized pain. As Thompson concludes herself, there is no healing from the devastation of displacement and dehumanization initiated in the past, only a choice to keep living through its repercussions in the present. (Fittingly, this performance takes place during Black History Month, which points to the small steps we consider impactful on a problem that’s as metaphysical and incalculable as it is tangible and relevant.)
Thompson and director Dawn Walton use a variety of techniques to make Thompson’s journey (which began with another artist Thompson purposefully doesn’t name) and the learning from it visceral to the audience, including white settlers like me. The first is Thompson’s sheer power of presence onstage: she’s calm but intense, never pushing but allowing her emotions, which swing from playfulness to sorrowful, deep anger, to emerge in her words.
“It is and should be a cursed continent, but it’s where I’ve always lived. Europe,” she says, as she lists the microaggressions she endures and the ways in which she resists, while also acknowledging her place and privilege as a British citizen with a British passport that allows her to choose to take such journeys.
A repeated phrase that trails off to finish a thought — “Something in me …” — brings to mind the way that this story comes from Thompson’s body: her skin, her blood, her ancestry, her connection to the African diaspora, her innate urge to take this trip in her desire for space and perspective on contemporary colonization and racism.
But in addition to Thompson’s storytelling there is a physical tactic that gives salt its title; with a sledgehammer in her hands and plastic goggles on her eyes (the first two rows get them too), Thompson breaks down a large chunk of pink salt throughout the show.
In its most moving segment, Thompson spreads several medium-sized pieces across the front of the stage to illustrate the way systems of oppression (“capitalism, colonialism, racism and God knows what else”) destroy organizations and humans beneath them. Using the cargo ship travelling from the U.K. to Ghana as her example, she shows how these systems remain mostly untouched, while those at the bottom of the hierarchy — two Black
women, Thompson and her fellow artist — are pulverized into dust.
All this said, salt is primarily a warm and celebratory production. Thompson’s arrivals in Ghana and Jamaica are complex but ultimately joyous, as seen in a dramatic moment in Cassie Mitchell’s mostly subtle lighting design. This is where her parents and grandparents return to the story and bring it full circle, back to Thompson herself.
Salt deals with dark and weighty subjects, delivered by a Black woman who is not defeated or deterred by them. They are real, but they are not indestructible.
At first, the chunk of salt is too heavy for Thompson to move, other than rolling it along the ground. At the end, she sweeps it away. And then she gives you a piece as you leave: a reminder but not one that needs to drag you down.