Young Black Victorian: Review

By Kelly Luck

YoungBlackVictorianIn a way, it is unfortunate that the Fishtank is such an intimate space, as Ms Rasheedat ‘Ras’ Badejo’s one-woman production is almost certainly going to play to sold-out houses throughout the fringe and most likely to the post-fringe “overflow” performances already slated for August. Ms Badejo’s portrayal of a woman mostly forgotten by history is a fascinating one, and we expect word to get out fast.

Badajo (who also wrote the play) stars as Sarah Forbes Bonetta (née Aina), a Yoruba princess in Nigeria when her people were conquered by King Ghezo, who enslaved her with intent to use her for a sacrifice. Captain Frederick E. Forbes of the Royal Navy convinced the king it would be a good diplomatic move to send the girl to Queen Victoria as a “present” instead, and so the six-year-old Sarah was given a new name and passage to England aboard the Captain’s own ship.

What follows is a sort of condensed biography: terrified Sarah meets the queen for the first time, and is quite taken by her. The feeling is mutual, and Sarah finds herself the queen’s goddaughter, being raised by the Captain as a part of his family. She is sent off to school, gets married, has three children and dies at age of thirty-seven of the tuberculosis that has haunted her ever since her arrival in England.

Over the course of the play, multiple historical sources are used to show the character’s interaction with others: letters, diary entries, etc. These add a real depth to the story, filling in the world around her. It is a glimpse into the attitudes of the people who knew her, and sometimes shows us more than we wanted to see.

In a story like this, to touch on the politics of race and colonization is of course inevitable. We shudder at Sarah’s people being called “savages”, but then think back to the fate she narrowly avoided. We cheer the intervention of the good Captain to save her, but inevitably must call to mind other “interventions” that were not so beneficent. The history of Ms Bonetta is the history of Empire in miniature: the complexities and conflicts of drives and personalities, the clashing ideas of “right” and “good”. Human beings are not clear cut, never simple. Ms. Badejo’s portrayal shows this all too well.

In a Q&A after the show, Ms Badejo mentioned that she, like Sarah, is of Yoruba descent. This tie to the past seems to drive her in this production (the ‘first iteration’, we are assured), and results in what is already an impressive performance. Persons wishing to see it are advised not to delay in acquiring their tickets.