If you distilled the experiences of African Americans into an hour and 45 minutes, it might look something like “Ships, Shells, and Chains.” The play by Kalamazoo’s Kendra Ann Flournoy is a series of vignettes that follows a fictional family tree from a village in Africa all the way up to the present day in the United States.
Face Off Theatre will perform the play this weekend — February 22 through February 25 — in honor of Black History Month.
The play centers around an African princess named Naju and her descendants. Compared to the hardships that await her, Naju’s problems in Africa seem so simple. She wants to marry someone other than her betrothed, a man named Sanja. But when Naju is captured during the slave trade, she’s stripped of her title and her culture.
“It’s heartbreaking, but she’s trying to hold on to it the best that she can,” said Charlotte Thomas who plays young Naju.
It’s the beginning of the slave trade and a village elder — played by Brandon Burnett — is trying to find out why people are disappearing.
“I never really thought about what life was like in Africa when people’s childrens and brothers and sisters were getting snatched and charted off on the ships,” said Burnett.
After slavery is over in the U.S., discrimination still remains. One of Naju’s heirs gets harassed when he tries to open a business.
The play even addresses less obvious forms of racism, like access to healthy food. In one vignette, a man named Semion goes to see an herbalist because the food he’s eating is making him sick. Burnett says this is a problem many African Americans can relate to — including him. At one time he says he was significantly overweight and it was affecting his health.
“I’m from Detroit and I live in a food desert, I have to go to the next city over in order to find fresh fruit,” said Burnett.
Like most of the cast, Burnett plays multiple characters. He says the last character he plays, Semion, is just as brash and prideful as the first character — Semion’s ancestor, Yeso. Playwright Kendra Flournoy says that’s very intentional.
“We just inherit things and it can be cultural things, it can boil down to personality and how that’s transferred from generation to generation,” Flournoy said.
Though “Ships, Shells, and Chains” tackles some tough issues, it’s broken up by songs, dances, and some commentary. Director Bianca Washington says it’s what some might call a “Greek chorus,” but African cultures had this too.
Charlotte Thomas says this play has made her and many of the other cast members think about their own heritage.
“It’s tough because for a lot of African American people, we can’t trace back to what tribes we were a part of or who were our ancestors were specifically,” said Thomas.
“Even being able to have a slightly generic sense of where I came from and just that connection with my ancestors as I speak these words that I’m speaking throughout the play is major for me.”
Washington says playwright Flournoy has done something revolutionary by showing African Americans’ journey in this way.
“I had to sit there for a minute and think about what have I seen like this on the stage and I honestly couldn’t really come up with anything,” she said.
Washington says some people question why artists continue to tell the story of slavery in the United States, a period of time they would rather ignore.
“But it is a part of our history — the good and the bad and the ugly," said Washington. "All of that mixed in.”
You can see “Ships, Shells, and Chains” through Sunday at First Congregational Church in Kalamazoo.