For me, the only issue with The Belgrade’s Big Aunty is that audiences never get to see Big Aunty AKA Vivienne Mavis Taylor. She is the title character who we get to know beyond the grave. With numerous people talking about her death, we then begin to understand her life. Of Jamaica, she was a member of the Windrush Generation – named for the ship that came into Tilbury Docks in June 1948. However, the term ‘Windrush’ was then used to describe successive arrivals from the Caribbean too (up to 1971).
With the major theme of Big Aunty being death and grief in Caribbean communities, I was brought to revisit my own experiences. When I was twenty-one, my auntie died from a terminal illness called Scleroderma. Her funeral was a celebration of life and that she had now joined the ancestors. At this point, we as her family also took part in the African ritual of Nine Night – an extended wake that is practiced in many Caribbean countries (many of my Caribbean colleagues / friends reading this will relate).
Set between Jamaican and England, this show touched me: it reminds me that I am as much a child of England as I am the Caribbean (in my case Grenada and Jamaica). There sits a “double consciousness” of identity and the right to belong. It also showed me how ill-prepared I am for the passing of elder family members as tomorrow is not promised.
Corey Campbell’s play’s made me think about things I had put off, not so much about death but about life. This story walks behind slave ships, watching the dead as visual (un)conscious symbols of colonialism – and how the passing of the Windrush Generation is entangled in the afterlife of slavery. In places like Northampton, the fact we even have a Windrush Generation will become myth if we do not do more to protect this history.
In Big Aunty, there sits an indignation to the silence of whiteness that impacts Black elders – a discrmination that sees many dying early. Campbell shows how the mark of the slave ship still marks Black communities around the world today. Though dead before the play begins, Vivienne Mavis Taylor lays in the ship’s hold as a victim of containment and punishment. In a world where anti-Blackness and white supremacy are situated in a culture of normalised premature Black death, plays like Big Aunty are needed. “Wake work”, as discussed in Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake, can be done through art. Theatre is one site.
This show’s got the talawa, and the word talawa means ‘small but strong’. At only 75 minutes, this is a short play but it packs a punch. With the three central performances from Alexia McIntosh, Keiren Hamilton-Amos, and director Corey Campbell, they are all brilliant to see in action. Yet, Big Aunty shows Caribbean funerals are all alike in celebration: food, dancing, music, sound system. And through the white gaze, how we do things at our funerals may appear different to British funerals. But the point is not to feel sad (though you have every right to and people’s feelings can take them), but to celebrate having lived.