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The University of Southampton
History Part of Humanities

History of Slavery Explored in Collaborative Project

Published: 5 June 2019

A collaborative project between the celebrated vocal and movement artist Elaine Mitchener and Professor Christer Petley of the University of Southampton has been performed across the UK and is currently on tour.

SWEET TOOTH, an ambitious cross-disciplinary music theatre piece, uses text, improvisation and movement to engage with the brutal history of slavery in Jamaica as well as its contemporary resonances.

In November 2017, it was premiered at Liverpool Bluecoat, in coordination with an event at the International Slavery Museum. It has since been showcased on BBC Radio 3’s Hear and Now.

The text for SWEET TOOTH includes extracts from ‘Guinea Corn,’ a traditional Jamaican plantation chant; a Kumina invocation transcribed in Morant Bay, Jamaica during the 1950s; and the names and other details of slaves taken from the 1813 inventory of plantation owner Simon Taylor.

As Professor Petley notes, inventories of human property were one of the ways in which Jamaican planters sought to control their slaves. The project began when Mitchener and Petley met and read Taylor’s inventory aloud. “The experience of reading or hearing this list,” says Professor Petley, “has a suggestive pathos and power that I cannot yet really begin to describe, and which perhaps simply goes beyond what words can say.”

SWEET TOOTH has been widely acclaimed. “Elaine Mitchener has ACHIEVED A MOST DIFFICULT CHALLENGE,” writes Robert Wyatt in The Wire. “She has created a dauntingly vivid theatrical evocation of deep and prolonged collective pain in such a way as to bring out OUR emotional empathy fundamental to communication. She has not aimed for ‘beautiful art’ but her unblinking honesty and the ultrasensitive resonance of her three musical companions, has paradoxically created something of real, visceral beauty- art, in fact.”

Employing music ensemble, installation, solo work and film to explore the legacies of slavery, SWEET TOOTH is a constantly-evolving project. It is also, as Kevin Le Gendre writes for Jazzwise, “a vital black British addition to those seminal creative statements of resistance and defiance from the African Diaspora.”

SWEET TOOTH has been supported with public funding from Arts Council England. Commissioned by Bluecoat in partnership with the Stuart Hall Foundation, London and The International Slavery Museum with further support from PRSF Open Fund, Edge Hill University, Centre 151 and St George’s Bloomsbury.

As part of the Venus Unwrapped season, SWEET TOOTH will be performed at Kings Place, London on 14 June 2019 and 9 November. It will also form part of the Colour Out of Space Festival on 27 June 2019.

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