Sweet Tooth

On 22 February 2018, acclaimed vocalist and movement artist Elaine Mitchener gave the London premiere SWEET TOOTH, an experimental music theatre piece, which deals with the historical links between sugar and slavery.

The work is divided into six chapters: 1. Universal slide – invocation  2. Bound
 3. Scold’s Bridle
 4. Names  5. Scramble
 6. The mill – invocation

SWEET TOOTH marks the culmination of five years’ research by Mitchener into our love of sugar and the historical links between the UK sugar industry and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

During this period, she worked with University of Southampton historian Christer Petley, Senior Lecturer in History University of Southampton and an expert in the history of slavery in the Caribbean, and also researched in the archives of Harewood House in Leeds, which was built by 18th century plantation owner Edwin Lascelles.

Some of that material, such as inventories (discovered in Jamaica by Petley) of more than 2,000 enslaved Africans owned by Samuel Taylor, another 18th century British sugar baron, provides the basis for the dramaturgy of SWEET TOOTH.

Running in parallel with this historical research, an intensive period of artistic development culminated in 2016 in two residential workshops at the University of Southampton and Aldeburgh Music, during which Mitchener brought together a trio of experimental musicians – saxophonist Jason Yarde, percussionist Mark Sanders and multi-instrumentalist Sylvia Hallett – and award-winning Vietnamese-American choreographer Dam van Huynh as movement director, to collaborate on the production of SWEET TOOTH.

For Mitchener, the challenge was how to present the material in a way that was true to the realities of slavery, without it feeling gratuitous or exploitative. Empathising with the material and improvising responses to it, the input of the musicians and choreographer was crucial to this process.

Presenting SWEET TOOTH in the Hawksmoor church of St George’s Bloomsbury for its London premiere, engages the work directly with the history of colonialism and Transatlantic slavery. The location is especially resonant, for since its consecration in 1731 St George’s has had a particular connection to the disenfranchised peoples of the African continent. Parishioner Charles Grant was a friend of both William Wilberforce and Lord Mansfield, both parliamentary leaders in the fight for the abolition of slavery.

With Wilberforce, Charles Grant created the Sierra Leone Company in 1791, a free colony in Sierra Leone that gave refuge to freed slaves. Lord Mansfield’s illegitimate, mixed-race grand-niece, Dido-Elizabeth Belle, who was born into slavery as the natural daughter of Maria Belle, an enslaved African woman in the British West Indies, and Sir John Lindsay, Manfield’s nephew, a British career naval officer who was stationed there, baptized in St George’s in 1766. She went on to become his secretary and live openly, freely (and quite controversially) with Mansfield and his wife at Kenwood House.

It’s history of social and political engagement continued into the early 20th century where St George’s was the setting for the memorial service for Emily Davison, the suffragette who threw herself under the King’s horse in Derby. In 1937, it held a special service of remembrance for those killed during the Abyssinian War, which was attended by Emperor Haile Selassie.

Elaine Mitchener says of SWEET TOOTH:

“I was born in the East End of London to parents who’d migrated to the UK from Jamaica in the 1960s. Like many Black British people, my ancestry includes enslaved Africans, sold by Africans to British traders to work on sugar plantations in the Caribbean and Brazil. SWEET TOOTH is my attempt to make sense of that fact, and to honour the memory of my ancestors who were forced to live and work in appalling conditions in order to satisfy our desire for sugar.

“SWEET TOOTH is a deeply personal project, not only about Black history, but as an important chapter of British history and the pivotal role Black people have played in it. Slavery is not just a traumatic episode that happened 400 years ago, something that we can now view dispassionately through a historical lens. Modern day slavery is a reality that continues to afflict millions of people across the world. The present-day legacy of slavery’s historical trauma cannot be underestimated”.

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

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