In the 14 years of GLAS, most people seem to recall one production more than others and that is Donal O’Kelly’s masterpiece Catalpa; so good we staged it twice. GLAS has also hosted his Fionnuala, Joyced (performed by his daughter Katie O’Kelly), and Little Thing, Big Thing.
Donal’s return to the Geneva stage was long overdue and he did not disappoint last night with The Cambria, which tells the story of the 19th century American civil rights campaigner and escaped slave, Frederick Douglass’s journey to Ireland to escape the possibility of re-capture just as fame descended on him with the publication of his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.
Last night, Donal and Sorcha Fox re-enacted that voyage, playing a host of characters between them with an aplomb and skill that was breathtaking. O’Kelly took on the role of Douglass himself and played him with dignity, pathos and humour that did not spare the audience’s feelings as he channeled how Douglass broke the silence that still surrounds that revolting chapter in the history of the western world.
The Cambria marks a bright spot in Ireland’s history before it sank into the depravity of the Great Famine. Douglass survived threats from a slave owner on board the trans-Atlantic paddle steamer with the support of some crew and was greeted on arrival in Ireland by the Liberator himself, Daniel O’Connell, who had achieved Catholic emancipation in 1829 and was an implacable opponent of slavery.
Douglass wrote: “I am covered with the soft, grey fog of the Emerald Isle. I breathe, and lo! the chattel becomes a man. I gaze around in vain for one who will question my equal humanity, claim me as his slave, or offer me an insult.”
Ireland is not allowed to rest on its laurels by O’Kelly who frames the story in the context of official Ireland’s attitude towards asylum seekers and the system of direct provision which condemns people to a miserable life of uncertain abode with no right to work, little financial support and the possibility of deportation.
The opening scene features a discussion and lament about the deportation of a Nigerian boy who played the role of St. Patrick in a school play. The brutal act of severance from what had become his home place echoes the history of those taken into slavery.
The powerful play concludes with Douglass’s rallying cry, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” The proceeds of the evening, CHF 4,000, are destined for the Gaza School of Music, which continues to function and educate children in the face of brutal oppression.