“Europe has erased the Haitian revolution from the history books,” says one of the actors in Emily Aboud’s broadside for Lagahoo Productions, a lively patchwork of a play that claims not to be about slavery, but kind of is. The playwright contends that Haiti, having become the first black republic in 1804, has been conveniently forgotten about by the slave-trading nations.
Britain, for example, took another 40 years to phase out the trade in human beings, while France was accepting reparations from Haiti as recently as 1947 – the country paid the equivalent of £17.4bn in today’s money for its own freedom.
Plenty of reasons for the west to treat the Caribbean nation as a guilty secret and plenty of reasons, Aboud suggests, to attribute supernatural powers to its residents. Can it be merely coincidence, the play asks, that the first country to abolish slavery is the one its former colonisers most closely associate with the dark arts? Could the fear of magical effigies really be a fear of repressed guilt, the truth lurking in the darkness that threatens to jump out and expose the perpetrators?
That the religion of Vodou (as distinct from Voodoo) is a spiritual belief system focused on love – and not things that go bump in the night – is an irony that tells you more about the oppressors than the oppressed. It was with a Vodou ceremony in 1791 that the revolution began.
All this is fascinating, enraging stuff – as is the question of where the pain goes after a crime of this scale. This is not a remote piece of history, but something seen all around us in the cities built on the back of the slave trade. Aboud suggests we are still scared of the implications.
Whether this adds up to a coherent play is another matter. Bogeyman is built on a pleasing variety of forms, the four actors switching deftly from dance to direct address, storytelling and dramatic sketches. The scenes, though, are inconsistent. Some look like workshop exercises, others are inconsequential domestic exchanges, while the real polemical force is reserved for the factual information which, for all its political weight, feels like raw material in search of a play.