The Scotsman Sessions #60: Mara Menzies
In this summer of 2020, the subject of Scotland’s role in the British Empire, and of the wealth brought to this country through Scottish connections with the horrific transatlantic slave trade, has suddenly reached the top of the news agenda, following the worldwide wave of Black Lives Matter protests.
For the Edinburgh-based theatre-maker and storyteller Mara Menzies, though, this subject is not new. Throughout her career, she has sought to create work that explores her own Kenyan and Scottish dual identity, and the wider relationship between Africa and Europe; in the last decade, she has made shows reflecting on the life of the Scottish explorer David Livingstone (I Knew A Man Called Livingstone, 2013), and has also explored the story of Angolan warrior queen Nzinga and her struggle against Portuguese colonialism (Nzinga, 2014), as well as using the power and magic of the African storytelling tradition to explore highly contemporary issues to do with truth, lies, and perception, in The Illusion Of Truth (2017). Menzies’ work has now been seen in a dozen countries across the world, including Jamaica, Singapore, Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, Russia, and all parts of the UK, and - like the work of other Scottish-based artists of African heritage - is gradually beginning to win greater recognition, both at home and internationally.
Mara Menzies’s 2019 show Blood And Gold - written and performed by Menzies herself, directed by her sister Isla Menzies, and premiered at the Scottish Storytelling Centre during last year’s Edinburgh Fringe - is a powerful one-hour monologue which uses the rich, dream-like imagery of African legend to conjure up the perennial human struggle against The Shadow, a force of evil, spite, division and mischief that destroys joy and innocence, and drains the colour from the world.
Here, in the show’s final story, Menzies blends this powerful imagery into the narrative of a beloved young African man - “the young man with sparkling eyes” - and his journey to a new world, where he finds not the happiness and opportunity for which he hoped, but a terrible sudden death at the hands of a man possessed by The Shadow. It is the story of Somali student Axmed Sheikh, who, while studying at Edinburgh University, was stabbed to death in the Grassmarket in 1989 in a notorious racially-motivated attack, although no-one has ever been convicted of his murder. And in this brief sequence, Mara Menzies weaves all her magical narrative power around the outline of this bleak western news story, pouring a whole universe of colour and energy into her evocation of the spiritual, cultural, and historical meaning of Axmed Sheikh’s journey; and of the mighty ties that bind him to his mother and family in Somalia, continuing to live and vibrate even as his physical life ebbs away, in an Edinburgh telephone box.
The music used in this extract is Event Horizon, available at audionautix.com
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