“Message From a Slave” is a compelling story told in two voices.
The first act is a riveting tale that follows the life of Chaku from age 17 to 20. Stolen from her idyllic African village, thrown onto a ship and sold into a life of slavery, Chaku remains unbowed and unbroken.
The much shorter second act is told by Chaku’s daughter, Ayo. Where Chaku enters the stage as a buoyant teenager and leaves as a rebellious young woman, Ayo enters as a resilient older woman, widowed after 75 years of marriage.
And Ayo has some things to say — some sound, if unsolicited, advice.
Written by Heritage Ensemble Theatre Company’s artistic director Margarette Joyner and directed by Shanea N. Taylor, “Message From a Slave” is deceptively simple in structure but delivers a powerful message. What makes it work is not just Joyner’s passionate script or Taylor’s keen direction. Nor is it Vinnie Gonzalez’s larger-than-life silhouettes that populate the stage, suggesting scenes of Africa and America.
There are two things that stand out about this production and make it a must-see: One is actress Pamela Archer-Shaw; the other is love.
Archer-Shaw, who has performed in previous Heritage Ensemble productions as well as shows by Virginia Rep and Theatre VCU, seems to have a spiritual connection to both Chaku and Ayo that transcends the script, the set or anything else tangible.
When she dances out in her colorful African dress and talks about her first love, we are right there on the beach with her. When she sings a capella about being on the ship of oppression, where all she wanted was to die, we feel the rolling of the ship and smell the bodies. When she kneels to take a beating from the slavemaster, her cries shake our very souls.
In Act Two, Archer-Shaw’s character, Ayo (which means joy), spends a few minutes reminiscing about the joy that her family was able to find, even on the plantation. We’re not talking about the fictitious joy of happy, singing slaves, but the joys of something as simple as having her husband wash her hair.
Love is the thread that makes this whole thing work. When Ayo sits in her rocking chair and tells the audience to raise their children and stop buying them with expensive parent substitutes like cellphones and such, the theater is transformed into a church, and the stage into a pulpit.
The opening-night audience was small — fewer than a dozen people were in attendance — but those who were there were drawn into a call and response that felt genuine.
Never mind that the second-act song, a contemporary gospel tune about finding peace — didn’t quite make the mark, or that there was no explanation in the first act about how and when Chaku learned to understand and speak English.
What remains is that Joyner has written a moving tale of love and resilience that would deliver a powerful message at any time, not just for Black History Month.