January 19, 2020
The Under the Radar Festival at the Public Theater, now in its sixteenth year, presents new and cutting-edge work by a diverse, global group of artists that are redefining what theater can be. Selina Thompson’s salt. begins with her story of travelling from the U.K. to Ghana, then on to Jamaica and back, to experience the path of her enslaved ancestors -- but it evolves into much more than that: an intensely personal, sometimes disturbing journey of her own. Accounts of the African diaspora abound, yet this seventy-five-minute soliloquy uniquely penetrated our consciousness, slowly and masterfully weaving humor and grace with sobering anecdotes: from the smallest indignities to the outright violence that black people continue to face every day.
The spectacular Rochelle Rose presided over an altar-like table equipped with a mortar and pestle (and water bottle) staring proudly ahead like a priestess in a long, flowing white dress. A large neon-lit triangle hung above her, Cross-like as she observed us filing into the theater. Then right off the bat, she told us to wear the plastic safety glasses on our seats, whenever she wore hers.
A British accent inflected Rose’s reminiscences and gave us a sense of place. Each memory is alive, lively, and sometimes daunting, punctuated with an increasingly fiercely expressed mantra “Europe keeps pushing against me, and I push back.” From the shockingly racist mythology perpetuated by her grandmother’s British schoolteacher, to recently being accosted by a stranger with racist questions about black fatherhood, Rose kept us spellbound with her animated and magnetic presence as she peppered her stories with frank feelings, anxieties, joys and sorrows; her everyday lived experience writ large.
We watch her struggle to understand contemporary injustice, and we share in her pain. Through an intensely emotional series of repetitive verse that outlined a hierarchy of abusive Western power – from “the State,” to capitalism, to a ship’s master, to the crew, to herself and her companion, she attempted to divine the origins of evil. And with every line, she smashed a large chunk of salt with a hammer, again and again, struggling to make sense of the senseless chain.
Thompson’s writing traverses time past, present, and future, a complex symphonic layering of experiences where “time accumulates.” salt. is an exhilarating and exhausting piece of theater that more than compels empathy from the audience; it is art that touches hearts and minds.
For Eye on the Arts, NY – Nicole Duffy Robertson