I’ve been to the Unity Theatre to see The Slave Trade, Feelgood Theatre’s adaptation of Mende Nazer’s autobiography, Slave which she wrote not just to tell the story of her own abduction into slavery, but also to highlight the fact that slavery still exists, even on our own doorstep. Slave – A Question of Freedom had its world premiere at the Lowry in 2010, and went on to win the Pete Postlethwaite Manchester Evening News Best New Play Award 2011, and other awards for best play, best director and best actress. Deservedly so; this is first-class theatre – powerful, moving, disturbing.
Mende Nazer was snatched from her home in the Nuba Mountains of southern Sudan in 1994 by Arab raiders enlisted by the government in Sudan, part of the genocidal scorched-earth policy it pursued throughout the 1990s against the Nuba and in Darfur. 12 years old, Mende was raped, stripped of her name and sold to a family who fed her scraps and locked her in a shed every night. After seven years, she was sent to work for the family of a relative working as a Sudanese diplomat in London. She managed to escape with the help of documentary film maker Damien Lewis, who also helped her successfully challenge the Blair government’s determination to deport her back to the Sudan: slavery, the Home Office ruled, did not constitute persecution. Mende is now a British citizen and lives and works in London.
Mende Nazar’s autobiography, Slave, was first published in 2003 as part of the campaign to prevent her deportation. Caroline Clegg read the book and knew she had to adapt it for the stage. After two years working with Mende and Damien Lewis, she and Kevin Fegan completed the script.
‘Life is a warm fire around which stories are told’.
Storytelling is at the heart of the Nuba culture, so the play begins with their oral tradition, telling a story around an evening fire. We are taken back to Mende’s childhood and a picture of family and community recognisable
anywhere: the bonds and occasional tensions of family, schoolgirl aspirations, traditions, ritual and the importance of belief. There is music and dance, and a wrestling match – a celebration of the ancient Nuba culture and Mende’s indomitable spirit.
The gentle opening act accentuates the contrast with Mende’s life from after her abduction, powerfully presented in scenes that do not shy away from the violence, degradation and denial of her human rights that Mende experiences.
The design is simple but effective: on a circular stage, circular images and objects – a table, rugs, pots and pans – seem to emphasise the human connectedness of society, family and friendship. In one remarkable image, as Mende – freshly arrived in the London diplomat’s home – is instructed in their use, the cast gyrate around the stage, household electrical appliances in hand.
The director Caroline Clegg has said:
Although this is one person’s story, Mende’s story is universal, giving voice to the voiceless, dispelling the myth that slavery ended 200 years ago. Slavery exists underground, outside the law and outside the United Nations Convention of Human Rights. This show packs a serious punch, but Mende’s indomitable spirit in the face of adversity shines through and challenges us all to make a difference.
There are currently around 23 million people trapped in slavery – ten times more than at the height of the transatlantic slave trade.
Rather than quietly accepting her situation, Mende told her story and is using the publicity to strengthen the campaign against the modern slave trade, while the proceeds from her book have helped set up a foundation, supported by Feelgood Theatre, to build a school in her home village.
Interview with Mende Nazer for Feelgood Theatre Productions and preview of Slave
- Brazilian taskforce frees more than 4,500 slaves after record number of raids on remote farms: Guardian report, January 2009
- Homeless being turned into ‘modern slaves’ by criminal gangs, says charity: Guardian, September 2011
- How domestic workers become slaves: The Guardian, August 2010
- Working like slaves: Gary Younge, The Guardian
- Foreign Office investigates claim that woman was kept as slave by diplomat: the first Guardian report of Mende Nazer’s case in 2002
- Escaping slavery ‘no grounds for refugee status’: Guardian reports Home Office rejection of Mende Nazer’s application for refugee status in October 2002
- Diplomat’s ‘slave’ can stay in UK: Guardian reports Mende Nazer’s successful appeal
- Salford theatre premieres tale of modern day slavery; The Guardian, November 2010