Volume 65 Issue 4, December 2022, pp. 471-498

Over the past five years, a number of Black British women authors have written what might be called postcolonial ghost plays. This article focuses, to varying degrees, on four: ear for eye (2018), debbie tucker green’s dissection of enslavement and its afterlives; Rockets and Blue Lights (2020), Winsome Pinnock’s historical film-within-a-play about the Middle Passage; The Gift (2020), Janice Okoh’s semi-biography of an African girl who became Queen Victoria’s ward; and Selina Thompson’s salt. (2018), an autobiographical performance piece tracing her ancestors’ enslavement. Ghosts and haunting, which I examine from multiple perspectives, appear across this range of theatrical genres. With their multiple, doubled, spectral, interpenetrating stories, tucker green, Pinnock, Okoh, and Thompson’s postcolonial ghost plays reactivate the past of enslavement that has not passed, that is still active in the form of racial and social injustices today. Ghosts, prevalent across the plays, represent the dead who, plumbing the depths of the Middle Passage, are denied a resting place. The ghost, the figure of the living dead par excellence, reflects the dehumanization of trafficked Africans, from whom their enslavers sought to subtract all subjectivity. Ghosts, too, reveal the work of mourning performed by the living for those who were never properly buried. This mourning exposes and disrupts enduring structures of injustice, and searches for reparation. Ghosts, or revenants, returning and refusing to rest, represent the resilient resistance to injustice. Finally, ghosts, neither fully past nor present, absent or present, symbolize indeterminacy and instability, illustrated in the plays by subjects determined to take control of their own identities and destinies. Together, these plays demonstrate how we must look back to the roots of historical racism in order to look forward to its eradication.

A teenager lazed back on his chair. Arms crossed. Legs spread. Face scrunched. Reluctantly, he listened. Standing over him, his mother. Brow crosshatched. Finger jabbing. She was giving him the “necessary advice from a Black mother to her Black son” (Sharpe 84): instructions on how to behave if stopped by the police:

SON: So if I put my hands up –

MOM: a threat, threatening.

SON: Slowly?

MOM: Provocative. […]

SON: By my side – ?

MOM: Attitude.

SON: (Hands) in pockets?

MOM: Concealing.


SON: hands together – ?

MOM: Masking […] . (tucker green 4–5)

Onlookers reinforced the warning, raising their hands, lowering them, putting them in their pockets. Others bowed their heads, dismayed. Glanced sideways, disbelieving. Looked up, exasperated.

Ninety minutes later, on a screen stretching across the stage, one by one people read laws and regulations, straight to camera:

The fugitive slave who has been on the

run for one month from the day his master

reported him to the police,

shall have his ears cut off and shall be

branded … on one shoulder.

If he commits the same infraction for

another month,

again counting from the day he is reported,

he shall have his hamstring cut


The third time

He shall be put to death. (tucker green 131–2)

These two scenes bookend ear for eye, the 2018 play by UK playwright debbie tucker green. The laws – this one quoted from the Code Noir issued in 1685 by France – which were read in the Royal Court production by “[v]arious Caucasian UK actors/non-actors” (129) – strictly controlled the lives of enslaved people in the Americas.1 The fact that these incontestably savage practices were enshrined in law instead of being outlawed illustrates unequivocally the institutionalization of brutality upon which the colonies were founded and serves to explain how historical racism – “badges of slavery”2 (Hartman, “The Time of Slavery” 763) – is stamped onto police, the judiciary, and other public infrastructures, in the invisible “everydayness” of systemic racism and social inequality as experienced today by Black people in post-slavery nations such as the United States, United Kingdom, and France (Hartman, “The Time of Slavery” 772).

In Ghosts of the African Diaspora, a publication to which much of the thinking in this essay is indebted, Joanne Chassot notes the striking number of ghost stories written by women including Toni Cade Bambara, Paule Marshall, and the postcolonial Ur-ghost story teller, Toni Morrison (2). Over the past five years, a marked number of Black British women authors, perhaps frustrated that theatre in the United Kingdom on the subject of enslavement has predominantly been authored by African American playwrights, have written what one might call “postcolonial ghost plays.”3 Black literary scholar Stacie McCormick adopts cultural historian Ashraf Rushdy’s term “neo-slave narrative” (1999) to denote art forms that seek to evade one-dimensional representations of the institution of slavery and to free Black artists to present “richer, more dynamic renderings of black subjectivity” (McCormick 5). This essay proposes a subgenre of the “neo-slave narratives” – namely, what I call the “postcolonial ghost play.” Having already cited ear for eye, I now focus on three further plays: a historical film-within-a-play, Winsome Pinnock’s Rockets and Blue Lights (2020); Janice Okoh’s The Gift (2020), based partly on the life of an African girl who became Queen Victoria’s ward; and an autobiographical performance, Selina Thompson’s salt. (2018). The figure of the ghost and/or the dynamic of haunting enable these plays to “own” an understanding of British imperialism and to explain its impact on what Paul Gilroy calls “the moral and political contents of British national identity” (52). Ghosts in these plays demand justice for the crimes of human trafficking and enslavement committed centuries ago, as the deathly afterlives of these crimes continue to animate contemporary societies in the form of endemic racial and social injustice. Across this range of theatrical genres, ghosts and haunting are solicited as a dramaturgical structuring principle; as an acknowledgement that racial discrimination today constitutes a legacy of the racist ideologies that served to justify the colonization by European powers of people in the Americas, Asia, and Africa; and as a testament to the resistance to injustice, which, like a revenant, refuses to rest.

Evidence suggests that humans have conducted burial rituals for at least three hundred millennia (Pettitt). According to numerous belief systems, the souls of those who meet with premature or traumatic deaths and are not buried with the obsequies due to every human, are condemned to wander. Cultural theorist Marina Warner describes ghosts as restless: they haunt because they petition the living to help them finally rest in peace (“Suffering Souls” 210). In Specters of Marx, one of the works credited with marking the “spectral turn” toward ghost studies as a field of enquiry, Jacques Derrida writes, “Nothing could be worse, for the work of mourning, than confusion or doubt: one has to know who is buried where – and it is necessary (to know – to make certain) that, in what remains of him, he remains there. Let him stay there and move no more!” (Spectres of Marx 9, emphasis in original). My essay does not treat ghosts in a supernatural sense; I understand ghosts as a double of the self: the self’s consciousness or conscience. “Ghosts are brought forth from the imagination, are they not? […] The unburied are restless,” (37) says a character in Pinnock’s Rockets and Blue Lights. Ghosts represent the work of mourning by the living, performed for those who were not properly buried; ghosts expose and disrupt enduring structures of injustice and search for reparation.

Few human genocides have provoked more confusion or doubt, more unmourned deaths, more wandering souls, than the transatlantic trade in enslaved people, where European imperial powers, and later their former colonial states as well, trafficked Africans to the Americas. On a journey lasting around one month to Brazil and three or more to the Caribbean or North America, captives were packed into overcrowded holds, “up to your neck in somebody else’s shit and vomit,” as one of Pinnock’s characters describes, whipped until sores were “carved out” on their backs (40). Succumbing to the smallpox, tuberculosis, or dysentery that rampaged throughout their cramped and squalid quarters, or to inhuman treatment, an untold number never arrived on the other shore. The prolonged debate surrounding precisely how many people were captured and how many died – historian Stephanie Smallwood’s research leads her to conclude that an average of 20 per cent of captives did not survive the journey, but on 40 per cent of journeys, this figure was exceeded (150) – compounds this confusion and doubt. Those thrown overboard were denied burial rites, somewhere to remain. Moreover, Chassot explains that eyewitness accounts of the Middle Passage and the fate of the deceased – she includes the scant extant accounts by Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, Venture Smith, Jeffrey Brace, and Olaudah Equiano (40–42) – are scarce. Poetic reimaginings of the Middle Passage include Edward Kamau Brathwaite’s The Arrivants (1973), Derek Walcott’s Omeros (1990), Kwame Dawes’s Requiem (1996), and M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (2008); and representations in visual art include Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus (Tate Modern, 2019) and Lubeina Himid’s Memorial to Zong (Lancaster Maritime Musuem, 2021). The plays to which I turn add to these artistic responses by conjuring, remembering, and gaining strength from the ghosts of the dead who, plumbing the watery depths of the Middle Passage, are denied a resting place.

Directed by Miranda Cromwell, Rockets and Blue Lights ran at Manchester’s Royal Exchange for just one week before theatres were forced by the COVID-19 pandemic to close on 16 March 2020. In August 2021 the production transferred to the Royal National Theatre, London.

In Pinnock’s play, past atrocities haunt the present. The ghosts of those who were subjected to maltreatment and injustice help the living today to assert, who were in the process of their own subjectivity and agency. The play’s focal point is one of the eighteenth- to nineteenth-century artist J.M.W. Turner’s most famous works, Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and DyingTyphoon coming on (1840), known as The Slave Ship. In the play’s prologue, the protagonist Lou views the painting, on display for the bicentenary of Britain’s abolition of the trade of enslaved people in 1807. In silhouette against a blazing sun, a three-masted schooner pitches into an ominous storm.4 Lou observes the “elegant suggestion of bloodshed in a captured sunset” (10). Amid the sea spray and swirling gulls in the foreground, she notices the shackled ankles and chained wrists of drowning or floating bodies. Turner is thought to have based The Slave Ship on the Zong Massacre (1781), where around 130 men and women were jettisoned from the Zong, a ship run by Liverpool merchants trafficking around 450 captives (Sharpe 34–39). Allegedly owing to a navigational error, the ship ran low on victuals. Since, under maritime insurance law, enslavers could not claim compensation for captives who died from “natural death” – including starvation – the captain ordered the slaughter of a quarter of the captives to spare the rest (Armstrong 172–73). In any event, the insurers refused to underwrite this “cargo” loss. The case went to court, where the jury finally settled in favour of the enslavers, thereby demonstrating “the extent to which British law had been corrupted by the nation’s support of the transatlantic slave trade” (Rupprecht 265). The Zong became a centrepiece in abolitionist propaganda where William Wilberforce, feted in the 2007 bicentenary of the Slave Trade Act for which he campaigned, insisted that it was typical, rather than aberrant (Baucom 64). Black studies specialist Christina Sharpe proposes that the fact that Turner’s painting does not specify one particular boat enables it to become “one version of one part of a more than four-hundred-year-long event” (37). But while typifying generalized systems of abuse and criminality, the painting tells nothing of the lives of the lost individuals. A character in Pinnock’s play accuses Turner’s painting: “The only person we can see has her head submerged in the water. I look at this painting and I don’t think about what’s just happened to those poor men, women, children. They’re invisible” (10). Nor are individual stories reflected in the numerous historical accounts, which tend to emphasize facts and statistics, running the risk, argues Chassot, of depicting the ship as a “soulless, empty husk” (71).5 Rockets and Blue Lights rehumanizes those who were dehumanized during the Middle Passage, offering visibility to their suffering and their struggle.

The play shifts between four time periods, providing a dramaturgical means for the past to haunt the present. Scenes set in 2006 show rehearsals for The Ghost Ship, a feature film directed by Black director Trevor King, funded by the Abolition Legacy Foundation to commemorate the bicentenary, and starring the Black actor, Lou. Black marine archaeologist Reuben (Lou’s love interest) is a consultant on the film. Then, scenes from The Ghost Ship film (which is enacted on stage rather than being projected on a screen) set in 2007 include events staged to mark the bicentenary. Notably, Turner’s The Slave Ship is exhibited on the reproduction boat used in the film (for the actual bicentenary a replica of the Zong sailed down London’s River Thames), which is visited by Black schoolteacher Essie and a group of children. Other scenes from The Ghost Ship are set in 1781 where Olu, a captured African woman played by Lou, is dragged from the hold of a ship and, after violently resisting, thrown overboard, joining adults and children thrashing for their lives (18). Finally, scenes from The Ghost Ship film-within-the-play set in 1840 feature Turner, who gains passage on a merchant ship bound for Africa to conduct research for his painting. Characters in the nineteenth-century scenes from the film include Meg, who ran away from her enslaver when he brought her from the Caribbean to London; and Lucy, an African freed during the Middle Passage by Black sailor Thomas, now her husband.

The film-within-the-play is entitled The Ghost Ship. While Turner’s title, The Slave Ship, draws attention to the enslavers’ murderous acts and their prisoners’ fate, Pinnock’s modification emphasizes remembrance for lives lost and the haunting impact of the trade of enslaved people on society today. When visiting Turner’s painting, Lou encounters Essie and her pupils. For Lou, the hands reaching through the sweeping surf “search for ours” (47). In turn, Essie says to her pupil Billie, “We pay tribute to the dead because they weren’t ever afforded the dignity of burial rites” (47). Smallwood places the relentless accumulation of unresolved, incomplete deaths in the Middle Passage within the context of West-African religious beliefs, describing how the Atlantic regime “took captives from fully realized humanity and suspended them in a purgatory in between tenuous life and dishonorable death.” (151). The failure to perform mortuary practices has far-reaching consequences, since the unmemorialized cannot undertake the essential transmigration to the realm of the ancestors, where they are threaded to the unborn. They cannot become woven into the protective web that channels death into the renewal of life thereby protecting communities from the loss of their members. A death at sea lacks a consecrated burial ground, the medium through which these vital connections between ancestors and heirs are maintained (140). Trapped, unable fully to die, unfulfilled souls languish in an unknown purgatory, haunting their living kinspeople while incapable of supporting them (152, 199). Rockets and Blue Lights’s haunted ontology remembers the drowned of the Middle Passage, recognizing their tormented restiveness.

Ghosts appear in Rockets and Blue Lights both in the dialogue and in forms visible to the audience. Examining Turner’s painting, Lou gasps and says, “Did you see that? The woman in the painting. She moved. […] There! Look, she did it again. She pulled her head out of the water. She looked right at me” (14). In parallel, the audience sees Olu’s ghost appear in Turner’s studio in The Ghost Ship film (36). These ghosts represent the uncommemorated dead whose fate Smallwood describes. In addition, ghosts are apt in the context of the transatlantic trade, since the reality of the captured Africans is often described as a living death. In literal terms, as the Zong Massacre demonstrated, a ship’s crew had the right to determine the life and death of its captives. Moreover, owing to the unlivable conditions, the hold, deep down inside the ship, was a deadly place, a kind of lived-in grave. Indeed, the Portuguese nickname for an enslaver’s ship was tumbeiro, “floating tomb” (Miller 314). The Middle Passage itself is also often described as a grave, an abyss, or a chasm (Thompson salt. 50). The objectification of the captives also suggests reification and death. Africans became “cargo,” bought cheap and sold dear in the Americas. Rockets and Blue Lights narrates how the Africans were forced to “stand in an auction block while men bid for [them] like they’d bid for a cow at market” (30). The play’s premiere, staged at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, a theatre constructed within a former cotton-trading hall with implicit associations with the institution of slavery, would have “resonated” and “echoed” with this reduction of humans to goods (Pinnock “Bearing”).

In other ways, ghosts represent the death-in-life subsistence of enslaved people. In Slavery and Social Death sociologist Orlando Patterson describes how the banning of languages, practices, adornments and other social markers by cultures of enslavement results in a “social nonperson” condemned to live a psychic death, alienated from the heritage of forebears and unable to anchor the living present in any conscious community of memory (5). Smallwood, similarly, uses the terms “annihilation of the self” and “complete disintegration of personhood” to describe the consequences of the institution of slavery (125). In The Ghost Ship Meg reminisces, in her otherwise proscribed indigenous language, about skirts from her native country made of “peacock feathers” and “woven straw” that looked like “spun gold,” and masks “fashioned from clay then stained with colours that corresponded to the various river gods” (27). Reuben describes how this entire culture was “erased” (45). Lou’s grandfather, Clarke (featured in conversation with her in Figure 1), captures this death-in-life when recounting that his grandfather’s grandfather never spoke of being enslaved “because once he was stripped of personhood it could not be given back to him” (61). The ghost, the figure of the living dead par excellence, gives substance to the experience of the Africans, from whom their enslavers sought to subtract subjectivity.

The ghosts of those who were dehumanized jostle with the ghosts of those who defied, battled, and campaigned. Coinciding with the introduction of transatlantic enslavement and equally written out of history was a politics of survival: endurance against all odds, relentless resistance, subversion, and insurrection, which began no later than when people where first captured on the African coast, as Olu’s vehement struggle on board The Ghost Ship illustrates. Thomas describes Lucy’s brand on her shoulder as “a sign of what you have survived, that through it all you remained human and tender” (35). The very fact that the Code Noir that I have quoted legislated against freedom seekers who absconded not once, but three times, testifies to the fighting resolve of the enslaved people who sought to emancipate themselves. The ultimate rebellion, explains the guide on Essie’s school trip, was to “jump in the sea and fly to their ancestors rather than be captured” (47). Prisoners took charge of their own destiny in the hope of journeying to the realm of the ancestors. Placing Olu’s, Meg’s, Lucy’s, and Thomas’s lives at the heart of Rockets and Blue Lights, Pinnock replaces the dominant abolitionist narrative of the bicentenary, the centrepiece of which was Wilberforce’s Slave Trade Act, with the enslaved people’s fight for their own self-emancipation. It is important to remember that abolitionists from African diasporas, including Mary Prince and Sarah Parker Remond, contributed crucially to the movement for emancipation. Meg, describing herself as one of the “furies” – Greco-Roman goddesses of vengeance, often of the murdered – warns that the ancestors, incensed by “the wrath of Mumbi, the goddess of the earth [...] will have their revenge one day for the afflictions visited on their children” (63, 28).6 Decker, a sailor aboard the ship on which Turner voyages, says, “I long for the forgetfulness of old age because I long to forget all that I have seen and done.” Lucy, formerly enslaved, retorts, “Tell him that we do not want him to forget. Tell him that we need him to remember” (77). Theatre specialist Alice Rayner emphasizes the ghost’s capacity for “unconcealing” and “unforgetting the presence of something absent, whether that be called a text or character, history or the past” (xvi). Pinnock’s play unconceals, unforgets, makes visible both abuse and suffering, and ferocity and fight. Ghosts represent both mourning and a warning, a furious battle cry for justice that refuses to be silenced.

Figure 1. Clarke (Everal A. Walsh) and his granddaughter Lou (Kiza Deen) in Winsome Pinnock’s Rockets and Blue Lights, Royal Exchange, Manchester, 2020.

Photo: © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg.

Pinnock evokes the memory of atrocity as a homage to unmemorialized victims and as a call to account for the perpetrators of the crimes and the societies on which those crimes are founded. Lucy describes how, before being rescued by Thomas, she was the mother of children, one of whom was bought by a lady as a pet for her son (34). Meg relates how she buried her newborn to spare him a life of enslavement. Her enslaver heard the baby’s cries, snatched him, and cut out his tongue (63). Unlike Meg’s baby, whose ability to speak was viciously removed, those who were enslaved find a voice in Rockets and Blue Lights, returning to haunt and demand that their suffering be heard. Pinnock finds theatrical modes to transmit stories that history has either deliberately left at the bottom of the ocean, or rendered academic and theoretical rather than embodied and emotional.

The “spectral moment,” according to Derrida, is the “dis-located time of the present […] a radically dis-jointed time, without certain conjunction,” (Specters, 20). Since ghosts represent the dead, they fold past into present. The structure of Rockets and Blue Lights, where different centuries double and haunt each other, is spectral. Thomas says to Turner, “This sea has swallowed ancient worlds alive, and one day she’ll belch them out again. Belch out all her secrets” (23–24). In one of the play’s most visually arresting and symbolically evocative moments, Turner “opens a trap door [in his studio] and pulls back repulsed at the stench from below. The sound of groans and pained suffering” (76). However hard history tries to erase the past, the putrid, airless hold of the galleon haunts successive centuries. Thomas finds a job as a cook on a merchant ship, The Glory. Lucy warns him, “They’ve given it a new name, scrubbed it clean, removed the shackles from its hold, but they can’t get rid of the stench” (41). Thomas soon discovers that, in spite of the 1807 abolition of the trade in enslaved people in Britain, The Glory carries captured Africans, trafficking them to Brazil where enslavement is still legal.7 In the sky, The Glory’s crew spot rockets and blue lights, a warning signal from a Royal Navy vessel seeking out human trafficking, which is now illegal under British law. Fearing prosecution, the crew throw the captured Africans overboard. In his attempt to unchain and save them, Thomas attacks a sailor, Decker. Aided by Turner, Decker regains control and Thomas himself is manacled, gagged, and later sold into enslavement. Pinnock’s play is called Rockets and Blue Lights – a work that Turner painted the same year as The Slave Ship – to indicate that the legacies of the institution of slavery endure centuries after 1807, after official Emancipation. Pinnock’s play embodies what Smallwood calls “the blurred and bloodied boundaries between captivity, commodification, and diaspora,” (8). Thomas freed Lucy but is himself enslaved in a spectral cycle of entrapment where the African diaspora is still subjected to the aftermaths of the trade in enslaved people.

Sharpe conceptualizes wake – “the track left on the water’s surface by a ship” (3) – as a “frame of and for living blackness in the diaspora in the still unfolding aftermaths of Atlantic chattel slavery” (2). The Zong, the logic of dehumanization, the stripping of personhood that began in the Middle Passage, all haunt the present with racial injustice like the wake of an enslaver’s ship: like a revenant ghost ship. Spectrality, created by Pinnock by pairing characters across centuries, illustrates how past injustices have not passed. Lucy bears the scars from the whipping she received with the cat-o’-nine-tails; Reuben notices that Lou’s allergic reaction has made her back bleed (66). The mirroring stories of Lou (twenty-first century), Olu (eighteenth century), whom she plays in the film, and Lucy (nineteenth century) demonstrate how, in a literal sense, collective trauma is inherited in the form of what literary theorist Marianne Hirsch terms “postmemory” (106) – illustrated here by the ancestral trauma that Lou’s skin somatizes – and how historical racism, legislated four centuries ago and persisting in racial discrimination today, plays out on Black lives. Lucy and Tom, who met on an enslaver’s ship, become the ghostly ancestors of Lou’s grandparents, who arrived from the Caribbean in the wave of immigration following the docking in London in 1948 of the Empire Windrush. Lou’s grandfather recalls having three jobs in order to survive: “I worked like a slave. […] A slave like my grandfather’s grandfather” (60). “History seeping through the walls,” as Lucy says (67). The past is a ghost, passing effortlessly through partitions. 1781, 1830, 2007: the years in which the play’s action takes place. Centuries after the abolition of the institution of slavery, endemic racial and social injustices return to haunt migrants and postmigrants today.

In Pinnock’s spectral dramaturgy, the past is unfinished. When Meg’s ghost visits Lou on the day of the awards for which The Ghost Ship has been nominated, she asks if times are now better. Lou does not reply (63). The continued erasure and devaluation of African and diaspora cultures is highlighted when Olu’s life story and the “amazing scenes about the Sons of Africa,” as Reuben describes them, are edited out of the film to showcase Turner’s biography, which is likely to be a bigger box office draw in what Lou damningly calls the “abolition theme park” of 2007 (10). The chronic denigration of African diasporic lives was spotlighted shamefully in 2018 when it was exposed that many members of the Windrush generation, who contributed vitally to rebuilding Britain after the World War II and subsequently to the country’s health, transportation, and other public services, had been wrongly denied legal rights and medical care, stripped of jobs and homes, even deported (Grierson).

The closing lines of Rockets and Blue Lights are sung by Thomas as he toils on a Brazilian plantation, guarded by a Portuguese overseer:

I survived the slave castles at Bonny, the

Zong and Baptist massacres. […]

I survived the fires of New Cross and Grenfell;

Death in custody, through all this I lived. (79)

From the sixteenth century, Africans were imprisoned in barracoons such as those at Bonny off the Biafran coast, before being deported like Thomas is, well after the institution of slavery was abolished in Britain. In 1830, five hundred insurgents were killed when the Great Jamaican Revolt, mounted by 30,000 enslaved people led by deacon Samuel Sharpe, was brutally suppressed. In 1981, thirteen Black teenagers at a birthday party perished in a fire the reasons for which have never been established, though eyewitnesses spoke of arson (White). In 2017 seventy-two people in Grenfell Tower social housing, most of whom were working-class and of African or Asian descent, were killed in a fire disastrously exacerbated by highly flammable insulation that had recently been installed (O’Hagen). In 2020 Black people accounted for 8 per cent of deaths in police custody but 3 per cent of the UK population (Afzal). While not comparable in terms of historical context, least of all scale, each tragedy commemorated by Thomas’s requiem underscores what Sharpe calls the wake, “the precarities of the afterlives of slavery,” in a still racially and socially unequal world (5). “[T]he distinction between the past and the present founders on the interminable grief engendered by slavery and its aftermath,” writes Hartman, positing that the “time of slavery” is not over (“The Time of Slavery” 759).

As the play ends, the cast joins Thomas in reciting the names of victims of racial attacks, “overlapping each other to create a brief echoing effect as though conjuring ghosts” (79). Like the doubled characters, these names testify to a genealogy of racist injustice spanning centuries: the wake, aftermath, afterlives, ghosts. This chorus, however, is not just a melancholic lament, a pathological return to a paralyzed past possessed by ghosts, “slavery’s necropolitics” (Jones 388). It is a transformative hymn, a raising of Black consciousness, an ethical imperative to affirm life. Rayner remarks that the “living energy of the actors measures an absence, in work that is specifically not trying to imitate life but to engage with life in its fullest aspect” (xvi). As Thomas’s shanty insists, despite genocide, enslavement, and systemic racism, against “nearly impossible odds” (Smallwood 64), he, they, survive. Included in the “they” are the Black actors on the stage, who appear in the theatre, despite structural inequities that are likely to have hampered their careers. Mourning becomes affirmative insofar as it simultaneously celebrates the fact that the characters, and actors, are alive, and it opens the possibility to envisage a better future. Lou exclaims to The Ghost Ship’s director, “It’s bad enough that you’ve got me playing a ghost. A fucking ghost, Trev. […] We’re always playing ghosts in one way or another. We’re not seen as real functioning people. When is this shit going to stop?” (38–39). The film-within-the-play’s title, The Ghost Ship, might play to the “abolition theme park” portrayal of enslaved people as faceless ghosts, agonizing victims, “black people in chains, again, beaten and degraded” (Jones 383), perpetuating the erasure of personal stories in favour of white saviour narratives. But Pinnock’s play itself salvages collective memory, reclaims the past from the sea, placing centre stage the individuality and humanity of Black people, notably women. Lou’s name is a semi-homophone or anagram of Olu and Lucy, tying her inextricably to her past. But it also resembles that of Captain Sola Andrews, whom she plays in a popular science-fiction television series. Famously, Martin Luther King, Jr. personally asked actor Nichelle Nichols not to leave the cast of Star Trek at the height of the Civil Rights movement in 1967, so important was her mass-mediated positive role for women and for Black people. In Rockets and Blue Lights, a Black woman, not an enslaver, is now captain, navigating her spaceship into the future, more cognizant of how the world was shaped in the past, and confident of how she can shape world-(re)making in the future.

In Rockets and Blue Lights, Olu’s ghost appears to Turner, demanding restitution for the crimes perpetrated against her and her fellow captives during the Middle Passage. A ghost story “in reverse,” The Gift stages a present-day Black woman who visits the nineteenth century, holding past injustices accountable for historical racism experienced today.

Act One of The Gift opens in 1862 in Brighton, England, as African entrepreneur James Davies and his wife, Sarah, host afternoon tea. Sarah is the real-life Omoba Aina, an Egbado woman of “royal African blood” who, we learn in the play, was captured in Africa as a small girl by a neighbouring army that slaughtered her family and enslaved her. Her enslaver, King Gezo of Dahomey, offered the child as a “gift” to Royal Naval Captain Frederick Forbes, who was on a diplomatic mission (Myers). Upon her arrival in England, aged seven, she was renamed Sarah Bonetta and made a protégée of Queen Victoria (see Figure 2), who bestowed gifts on her – explaining one connotation implied by the play’s title – and later became her daughter Victoria’s godmother.

Unlike the other plays analysed here, The Gift is a laugh-out-loud comedy, chockful of gags and gaffes, teeming with stinging satire. In Staging Black Fugitivity, McCormick defines “fugitive” narratives as those that evade and elude objectifying stereotypes of enslavement and Blackness, enabling new articulations of postslavery subjectivity (11–12). As opposed to the aesthetic of “black people in chains,” cotton fields, and whipping – the stock-in-trade of clichéd depictions of the institution of slavery – comedy becomes a “fugitive” genre that satirically sends up the British colonials and mocks their current-day descendants as they struggle to navigate political correctness.

Figure 2. Sarah Bonetta Davies (Shannon Hayes; right) and her servant Aggie (Donna Berlin; left) in Janice Okoh’s The Gift, Theatre Royal Stratford East, London, 2020.

© Ellie Kurttz. With kind permission of the Theatre Royal Stratford East.

In Act Two, structural engineer Sarah and university academic James, a Black professional couple who have recently relocated to rural northwest England, are paid a visit by new neighbours Harriet and Ben (see Figure 3). Despite falling over herself to be “woke” with her new neighbors, Harriet consistently misfires. She expresses surprise that Sarah and James adopted the child of a white friend who died: “I mean, I don’t think you could do it, you know, this way around if you went through the system” (68). White people like William Wilberforce save helpless Black people; the reverse, for Harriet, is inconceivable. Sarah and James explain that, actually, they identify as “culturally white”: their influences, friends, music, food – “[b]angers and mash and toad in the hole” (71) – are quintessentially English, and they grew up in white neighbourhoods. The stage version, directed by Dawn Walton in a co-production between Eclipse Theatre and the Belgrade Coventry, presented Sarah and James on a leather designer settee among carefully curated soft furnishings – the archetypal modern middle-class family.

The temperature in the room drops dramatically when the neighbours’ slippery, subtle (at times less-than-subtle) “Racism without Racial Epithets” in Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s terms (43) – what Selina Thompson calls the “smooth slick polite confused racism of [her] liberal friends” (salt. 26) – is exposed as the cornerstone of an overarching, overbearing structure: systemic racism. James has a black eye which, he explains to Harriet and Ben, he sustained while practising his hobby, boxing. But Harriet and Ben already know from gossiping neighbours that James was assaulted by the police. It finally emerges that Harriet, who had heard the couple’s little girl screaming, alerted the police, who proceeded to assault James in front of his four-year-old child (78–79). The teatime setting of all three acts exposes how the niceties and sophistication of the British ruling classes whitewash centuries of “theft, pillage, and bondage” in Sharpe’s words (102). Sarah Bonetta was spared her fate under an African enslaver king. The Victorian characters laud this act of benevolence while never mentioning the many millions of captives shipped across the Atlantic by the British. It is true that the institution of slavery already existed in pre-colonial Western Africa, where enemy populations were traditionally taken captive when defeated. However, the arrival of the Europeans represented “a shift of enormous proportions. […] a dramatic and abrupt shift in the scale of slave trading.” (Smallwood 31). As they sip from their porcelain teacups, upright and trussed, the polite society on stage veneer atrocity with gentility.

Figure 3. James (Dave Fishley), Sarah (Donna Berlin) and their neighbors Harriet (Rebecca Charles) and James (Richard Teverson) in Janice Okoh’s The Gift, Theatre Royal Stratford East, London, 2020.

© Ellie Kurttz. With kind permission of the Theatre Royal Stratford East.

Act Three collapses present into past as Sarah anachronistically appears in one of Queen Victoria’s palaces alongside her namesake, Sarah Bonetta. Since only Sarah Bonetta and not the Queen can see Sarah, the latter appears as a vision. This “spectral moment” destabilizes the cognition of temporal order as a linear sequence, illuminating the impact of the past on Sarah’s life. However many centuries Black people have lived in the United Kingdom – Rockets and Blue Lights shows a Black population living in London in the early nineteenth century, and Hakim Adi’s Black British History traces British Africans back to Roman times – the legacy of white supremacy established during the colonial era haunts British society today. Sarah says, “You see, we keep coming and coming, we, the African English, but we’re not wanted […] . So we’re crushed and killed and incarcerated” (92). She continues, describing the “many forms” of the colonial legacy:

Forms designed to make them feel superior […] trippings-up and misunderstandings and belittlings and lying and underestimatings and distrustings and underminings and shrinkings […] Piling on top of each other, pushing us down, overwhelming us until the madness sets in.” (93)

She remarks that this racism is endemic across British society: “It starts in schools with the undermarking. At work with the underpaying. Last to be interviewed,” (95). Sarah seems to echo Black activists and academics including Hartman who warns, in an often- yet never over-cited statement, “[B]lack lives are still imperiled and devalued by a racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago” (Lose Your Mother 6). Joining this protest, Sharpe’s concept of the “wake” highlights the “continuous and changing present of slavery’s as yet unresolved unfolding” (14). The “social death” of the captured and enslaved Africans persists into the present in the form of what Sharpe calls “ontological negation” or non/status (14): a society, where racist discrimination and social oppression are quotidian realities, “piling on top of each other, pushing down, overwhelming,” as Sarah says. Act Two ends as she removes her clothes. No matter how educated, professional, wealthy, or “culturally white” she becomes, her skin is branded, like Lucy’s in Rockets and Blue Lights. The badges, marks, scars, and spectres of colonialism haunt Sarah in a society still structured by historical racism.

Ghosts in Rockets and Blue Lights represent the souls of the unburied who demand restitution. Ghosts in The Gift represent the past of atrocity and abuse, which society today cannot bury. Resonant of Adrienne Kennedy’s use of a nineteenth-century milieu in Funnyhouse of a Negro (1964), the whitewashed walls; white panelled windows, cabinet, and drapes; white Victorian settee, armchairs, and tea table; and silver tea set of the first and third acts in the stage production offered a ghostly ambiance. Victorian England in Janice Okoh’s play becomes a menacing, threatening ghost, an afterlife of enslavement that haunts the present.

At the same time, ghosts in The Gift represent an opportunity for emancipation from oppression, a “fugitive” narrative. Sarah becomes a vision from the future appearing in the past to condemn colonial abuses and highlight their legacies in the present. She conjures her ancestor Sarah Bonetta in an attempt to revisit and revise History. Sarah Bonetta exists, Sarah says, as just “a few pages” written in English history books, a “portrait of [Queen Victoria’s] benevolence” (97). While she is lavished with the Queen’s generous gifts, Sarah Bonetta herself is a reified “gift.” While not enslaved, she suffers “social death,” the key characteristic according to Patterson being the stripping of one’s name, the most universal symbol of an individual’s identity, and of their relation with kinspeople (55). Sarah encourages Sarah Bonetta – Aina – to resuscitate herself from “social death” and erasure by writing back into history the centuries of resistance to which the fictional Lucy, Thomas, and Meg in Rockets and Blue Lights also contribute. Aina has a spear, a gift from a West African Yoruba Chief. Queen Victoria shows Aina how to use it, claiming she knows better than the Chief, who is “quite wrong”: “Such a funny little thing, isn’t it? To think after all their years of existence, this is all they could come up with” (94). Sarah entreats Aina to “Kill the Queen. Go down in our history as the one who gave us our freedom” (98). Aina “lunges at Queen Victoria with the spear and stabs her with it,” (100). A Black woman, representing the emancipatory acts and resistance movements that have been relegated to footnotes for four centuries – the Haitian Revolution, Jamaican Revolt, struggles for independence from imperial rule8 – lances the boil of colonialism, exorcizes the spectre of racism. Freedom and justice are not handed to the oppressed as a “gift”: they are fought for. And in any case, the oppressed do not want a “gift.” As Patterson states, “[A]ll kinds of obligations are established” when gifts are offered (212). They want what is due to them: rights. Sarah returns to the past to look forward to a future where resistance and hard-won struggles are recalled, and inspire.

In Act Three, Queen Victoria tries coaxing her goddaughter, Victoria – Aina’s daughter – from under the tea table. Unwilling to amuse the Queen, to be her plaything like her mother is, or like Lucy’s son in Rockets and Blue Lights, who is sold as a pet, little Victoria scurries off. She is a literal fugitive who runs away and a fugitive in McCormick’s sense: the representation of elusiveness, subversion, and subjectivity. She is also what I call a “fugitive ghost.” Neither fully past nor present, absent or present, ghosts, like “fugitives,” can symbolize indeterminacy and instability. As Derrida writes, hauntology involves “a procedure ready to undertake its self-critique […] explicitly open to its own transformation, re-evaluation, self-reinterpretation” (Specters 33). The “fugitive ghost” ruptures epistemes, disenabling the totalizing power of nation, culture, and identity. The ghostly or spectral are elusive, disjointed, dispersed, never explicit or definite. By rehabilitating her ancestors as resistance fighters rather than enslaved victims or beneficiaries of charity, Sarah might open an anti-identitarian, post-racial future where she can be “culturally white.” Aina’s daughter both literally and figuratively refuses to play ball with Queen Victoria, perhaps enabling her modern-day double, her namesake Victoria – Sarah’s daughter – to run off, to escape, to choose their identity with as much ease as those who enjoy the benefits of white privilege.

My concluding analysis returns to the primal moment of transatlantic enslavement: the Middle Passage. In this autobiographical performance piece, first acted by Thompson at London’s Southbank Centre before being restaged at the Edinburgh Festival and embarking on a national tour that included the Royal Court Theatre, the author-performer, dressed in the modest white underlinen that plantation labourers might have worn, explains that her birth parents and adoptive parents are – like Pinnock’s – “descended from enslaved people” (14). Given the subject matter, it is no coincidence that Dawn Walton, director of The Gift, also directed salt.

In 2016 Thompson boarded a cargo ship, embarking on part of the triangular trade route between Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Leaving from Antwerp, Belgium, her boat travelled down the West-African coast, stopping in Benin, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and Senegal – locations from which Africans were deported. Visiting Elmina in Ghana, she made a pilgrimage to the “slave castles” evoked by Thomas in Rockets and Blue Lights, which were represented in salt. with the kind of funeral wreath that visitors bring to the site to pay their respects. From Africa, Thompson flew across the Atlantic to Jamaica, then journeyed to plantations in North Carolina and Georgia before taking another freighter back across the Middle Passage in reverse, to Antwerp. salt. recounts Thompson’s voyage, and reflections on it.

Thompson’s aim was to “REMEMBER THE DEAD” (salt. 25). Ghosts do not feature in the classic manner that they do in Rockets and Blue Lights, but, Thompson says, as they sail down the African coast, “Sometimes at night […] the dead come up through the ship for me” (salt. 28). In her introduction to the playtext, performer Alexandrina Hemsley writes, “Hers is a work of exhuming the dead. salt. traces their ghostly forms so that we might honour their meticulous, industrial decimation” (in Thompson salt. 7). Like Rockets and Blue Lights, salt. heeds ghosts, recalls their suffering, and calls for justice.

In Thompson’s production, Europe is a continent founded on the “meticulous, industrial decimation” of African people, mercilessly and mercenarily sacrificed for selfish material gain. While for Lucy in Rockets and Blue Lights sugar, from plantations where people were forced to work, “is bitter aloes in [her] mouth” (salt. 42), the focus in Thompson’s play is salt. The giant rock of pink salt at the centre of the stage, with its hard edges and obstinate immovability, becomes the European continent that Thompson smashes at so violently with her sledgehammer that she and the front rows of the audience have to wear protective goggles (see Figure 4). “Europe is awash in blood,” she says. “Every penny of wealth, each brick of each intimidating building, the pavement slabs of quiet city streets and the soil beneath rolling green hillsides is built on suffering, massacre, death,” (salt. 19). While much US scholarship, notably that of Hartman, Smallwood, and Sharpe, is invaluable for expanding historical, sociological, and affective understandings of the Middle Passage and enslavement, Pinnock and Thompson portray the uniquely Black European experience of the double voyage, where members of the African-Caribbean diaspora have journeyed back across the Atlantic, settling in Europe. As Thompson highlights, discrimination and disadvantage follow them on both legs of the journey. Like The Gift, salt. exposes the centuries of colonialism that still haunt European cultures today. In early versions of the show, a wall stage left made from white salt bricks resembled the immense neoclassical architectural projects in metropolitan centres such as London or Paris – or indeed the imposing white décor of The Gift – financed by the massive wealth accumulated thanks to free labour in the colonies. Baked into every brick, beneath every whitewash, are the salty sweat and tears of enslaved people. The institution of slavery “shaped the world,” says Thompson (salt. 29). Her act of demolition seeks to expose the crimes of a continent, to deconstruct the white – as the wall – supremacy on which they were founded.

Figure 4. Rochelle Rose in Selina Thompson’s salt., Royal Court Theatre, London, 2019.

© Johan Persson. With the kind permission of the Royal Court Theatre.

Transmitted trauma is palpable throughout salt. Like a revenant, trauma becomes perpetual because it is perpetuated by the enduring logic of racism. In Saltwater Slavery, Smallwood states that the Middle Passage was so horrific an experience that African diasporas can “never completely escape the saltwater” (salt. 7). In Rockets and Blue Lights, Thomas and Lucy’s daughter Jess says, “I have a fear of drowning. I’ve drowned in my dreams several times,” (42). Lucy’s terrorizing experience of the Middle Passage is transferred to her child. For Lou, the trauma erupts through her skin, causing an allergic reaction. “They think it’s just history, but it isn’t” (46), she says, as Sarah in The Gift could equally say. In salt., Thompson alludes to the “residual trauma [she] inherit[s]” (41). She cannot rinse from her mouth the taste of brine, the trauma of murder, the stripping of personhood. The past, unfinished, haunts. Hemsley captures the enduring scars, still keenly felt: “The ongoing impacts of slavery remain unfathomable; they are formless down to the depths of the ocean, right down to the watery, sub-atomic reckonings with grief” (qtd. in Thompson salt. 8).

This trauma is caused not only by the history of enslavement to which Thompson’s ancestors were subjected but also by the persistence, today, of the racist ideologies used to legitimate that enslavement. On the cargo boat, the ship’s Italian captain asks Thompson and the Black filmmaker with whom she is travelling to call him “Master,” a title that in an instant transports their ancestors’ dehumanizing experiences to them (salt. 24). During dinner, looking them straight in the eyes, he uses a highly offensive racist insult. “I am growing accustomed to a timeline, an endless feed of black pain, black rage and black people having to assert that black lives matter because black death is normal,” she says (salt. 20). Despite the fact that Black people constitute an integral part of European society and culture going back centuries, as all the plays discussed here demonstrate, discrimination and abuse are part of Black people’s experience today. Thompson’s play not only conjures ghosts from the past to pay homage to the ungrieved dead; at the time of the performance she feels like a “dead living thing,” in a society founded on the racist ideologies that enslaved her ancestors (salt. 50). As with tucker green’s ear for eye, and with Rockets and Blue Lights and The Gift, past atrocities committed against African bodies, cultures, and societies crash into the present. Édouard Glissant describes linear History as “a highly functional fantasy of the West, originating at precisely the time when it alone ‘made’ the history of the World” (64). These playwrights illustrate how, rather than progressing ineluctably from the past toward modernity, former colonial empires perpetuate cycles of erasure and oppression.

The ghosts of those killed in the Middle Passage demand to be heard. Ghosts also make present ancestors who, when properly commemorated, as I have shown, provide solace and support. Ghosts do not adhere to the European Enlightenment rationalism that distinguishes past from present, the dead from the living, spirit from flesh, sacred from secular – the same rationalism that categorized the white “race” as superior (Boulle). Thompson’s conjuring of her ancestors’ spirits thus bears a subversive decolonial force. Moreover, as Toni Morrison explains, ancestors, discredited as a form of knowledge simply because Black people are discredited, can be “benevolent, instructive, and protective, and they provide a certain kind of wisdom” (343). Morrison favours “conscious historical connection” with ancestors, over total “self-relian[ce]” (344). In salt. Thompson senses that her ancestors watch over her:

Hands in my hands, on the back of my neck, hands on the small of my back, surrounding me and lifting me up, reminding me of all it took to bring me here. Of the need to continue to live. Of how sacred it is to be a descendant of those that were never supposed to survive. (salt. 51)

Theatre theorist Sarah Gorman describes salt. in terms of a “politics of self-care” (82). Like Thomas in Rockets and Blue Lights, Thompson takes comfort and strength from the fact that, in spite of the industrialized, systematized brutality of enslavement, she “continues to live” (salt. 51) thanks to the strength and counsel of her ancestors: “That the spirits would guide us home” (salt. 47).

The entire performance of salt. could be seen as summoning spirits, with Thompson as an officiating priest (see Figure 5). The first scene is entitled “Opening the Ritual,” and on stage a wooden work bench, or altar, beneath a neon triangle representing the triangular trade, bore a bottle of water containing a sprig of rosemary – a symbol of remembrance – along with a pestle of finely ground salt and an incense burner from which, against the black background, ghost-like wisps of white smoke drifted. “The space has been spiritually cleansed, and is ready for the spirit work that is to take place,” the stage directions indicate (salt. 14). Toward the end of the performance, Thompson invited audience members to take a crystal of salt from the rock she had shattered: “To take it is to make a commitment to live, a commitment to the radical space of not moving on, and all that it can open” (salt. 51). Once ghosts have been heeded, Derrida reminds us, they “move no more” (Spectres of Marx 9) “I choose to not move on. I refuse to get over what is not yet over,” says Thompson (salt. 22). And in a 2017 interview she says, “I’m just gonna really sit with all of this pain, all of this trauma, all of this intergenerational baggage, I’m really gonna sit with its global impact, its temporal impact and I’m gonna stay there for a bit,” (“Interview with Jen Harvie”).

Figure 5. Rochelle Rose in Selina Thompson’s salt., Royal Court Theatre, London, 2019.

I conclude by proposing that we, too, must “move no more,” “stay there for a bit,” “sit” with ghosts.

Thompson asks:

What should a site of mourning for the enslaved look like?

What might hold the long, long memory?

What would be both a covenant to never let such things happen again

And a refusal to forget? (37)

The full stop after salt. indicates a desire to end the sentence. And the grief. But the lower case “s” suggests that the story starts in medias res, that it is preceded by a history of which it is inextricably part, that has not ended, that cannot be forgotten. At the beginning of this essay, I cited Derrida asking the restless ghosts of the dead, now offered due obsequies, their “remains” finally laid to rest, to “remain,” to enjoy their long-awaited rest (Spectres of Marx 9). But while they must “move no more,” neither must we. Perhaps this injunction is marked by Thompson’s full stop, which asks us to “sit with all of this pain.” Warner summarizes the culture of remembrance that Derrida’s “spectrality” theorizes:

Mourning, melancholy and the macabre have tinged the pallor of spectres, but it seems that we might be entering a new phase in the history of our connections with the dead, that memory has become the crucial and necessary means to achieve peace with the past, so that we no longer wish to lay the ghosts, but rather to bring them back for prolonged acts of reconciliation. (“Suffering Souls” 214)

Sitting, living with ghosts rather than banishing or exorcising them does not represent an indulgent obsession with repaying debts to the past, but an acknowledgement, attention, and alertness that what they represent is as relevant now as it was in the past. Ghosts highlight the paradoxical and parallel imperative both properly to bury the dead and to keep their memory, the memory of suffering, alive to ensure that future generations do not endure what they had to. With their doubled, spectral, interpenetrating stories, tucker green’s, Pinnock’s, Okoh’s, and Thompson’s postcolonial ghost plays reactivate the past that has not passed, that is still active. As long as postcolonial nations live in the long shadow of the enslaver’s ship, as long as some of their inhabitants have to wade in the bloodied foam of historical racism, we must look back to the roots in order to look forward to eradication.

That piece of salt I took from the show sits on my desk as I write. Or, I sit with it. Pink-veined, it is as though the blood of those who met with premature deaths, or those who were flogged, trickles through it. Brittle, it is the unrecovered remains piled on the ocean floor – “the trail of bleached bones stretching out across the middle passage” (Thompson 29). Or the bones of the plantation workers on whose tireless backs empires were built. Or the salt of their sweat. Or the mortal thirst of the hold’s enchained prisoners. The tears of those who died, and those who mourn, which transforms grief into “a practice of countermemory that attends to that which has been negated and repressed” (Hartman, “The Time of Slavery” 771). The unyielding rock salt’s surface is a granular, filigree lace: both adamantine and diaphanous, it has a ghostly quality. Thompson describes grains of salt that are “like snow in the sea […] falling softly to the place with no answers” (50). The ocean is a watery mass grave, suspending the souls of the dead like salt. While the surface is powdered, the crystal is obdurate. Like a tombstone it invites me “not to move on”: to remember, reflect. Glittering, the salt represents the gold adornments worn by fishermen and salt-makers, that in the fifteenth century first drew the Portuguese to Africa, where gold was “as common as salt” (John Vogt qtd. in Smallwood 11), and the diamonds and other natural resources that the Global North continues to extract from the continent today. It represents the riches of African cultures that colonizers systematically devalued and derided.

In a special edition of Modern Drama entitled Slavery’s Reinventions, Margo Natalie Crawford argues against slavery becoming “the all-determining air of black experience” (488). In Thompson’s play, salt is a pharmakon, encapsulating both the toxicity of trauma and the therapy of healing (Derrida, Dissemination).9 At the end of the performance, the remains of the smashed salt lay across the stage like rubble, which Thompson carefully swept away, into a corner. Salt cleanses; it purges. The salt on my desk becomes smashed stone from the toppled statue of a public figure who made fame and fortune by enslaving others, and “all that [this dismantling] can open” : racial justice, social justice (Thompson 51). Salt can, in a real sense, disinfect wounds. It represents the vital contribution that people from African diasporas have made, notably since the Windrush generation, to the United Kingdom’s health and care sectors. And African Caribbean diasporic cultures – the novels of Caryl Phillips and Zadie Smith; the films of Steve McQueen and Campbell X; the cultural theory of Stuart Hall and Emma Dabiri; the literary and theatre theory of Joan Anim-Addo and Lynette Goddard; the plays of the authors I examine here – are as essential an ingredient to British culture as salt is to food. Finally, this splinter of salt is a synecdoche, one piece of the ecology that binds all humans and non-humans in mutual dependency. In a very literal sense, states Sharpe, the sodium, chlorine and other components of the human body, which have a residence time of 260 million years, are “with us still” (40). Thanks to these plays, the dead are remembered; we remain with them.


I extend my grateful thanks to Selina Thompson for generously providing insights into the staging of her performance.

Some of the ideas for this article were first conceived in a piece published in Finburgh Delijani, “L’Esclavage sur la scène britannique contemporaine.” Élisabeth Angel-Perez, Hélène Lecossois and Aloysia Rousseau, eds., Les Scènes britanniques et irlandaises ultracontemporaines, Théâtre/Public (September 2021): 52–58.


1. For a comprehensive examination of tucker green’s works see Adiseshiah and Bolton.

2. The Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution of 1865 abolished the institution of slavery; since 1883, Section 2 of the Thirteenth Amendment has given the US Congress the power “to pass all laws necessary and proper for abolishing all badges and incidents of slavery,” by prohibiting both public and private racial discrimination (qtd. in McAward 563).

3. Stacie Selmon McCormick provides a comprehensive account of Black drama in the United States that, since the 1950s and the Civil Rights Movement, has treated the subject of enslavement.

4. The many discussions of this painting include Wood (see 41–68).

5. Marcus Rediker’s comprehensive account of the trade in enslaved people combines historical fact with attempts to imagine how captured and enslaved Africans might have felt.

6. Haunting and Furies were included in Juliet Gilkes Romero’s The Whip directed by Kimberley Sykes for the Royal Shakespeare Company (2020). In the scenography, wooden pillars, which evoked the structure of an enslaver’s ship as well as the panelling inside the Houses of Parliament, highlighted how the fate of so many millions of enslaved people was in the hands of British politicians and businessmen. Behind these posts lurked alienated figures, the women in soiled shift dresses, the men in stained vests or overalls. These ghostly apparitions, sullied by sweat, suggested enslaved labourers. In one scene atop a table – denoting by turns the kitchen of a wealthy member of Parliament, a soap box during abolitionist campaigning, and the table between the frontbenches of the House of Commons – one of these figures danced furiously, beating a rolling pin against a pan and roaring her rage. Like Meg in Rockets and Blue Lights, she became a Fury, sounding her protest. In The Whip, ghosts of the enslaved, faraway out of sight and mind, haunted the metropolitan establishment.

7. The legislation that abolished slavery was signed in Brazil in 1888.

8. For an illuminating example, see Gonzalez.

9. In Trinidadian novelist Earl Lovelace’s novel Salt (1998), zombies, a Caribbean figuration of the living-dead from whom souls have been stolen by enslavers, “find release from their endless labour by eating salt” (Warner Phantasmagoria 366).

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