SWEET TOOTH is a cross-disciplinary music theatre piece devised by vocal and
movement artist Elaine Mitchener. It uses text, improvisation and movement to stage
a dramatic engagement with the brutal realities of slavery, as revealed by historical
records of the British sugar industry and to illuminate its contemporary echoes. The
work was commissioned by Bluecoat Liverpool in partnership with the Stuart Hall
Foundation and the International Slavery Museum. It was premiered at the Bluecoat,
Liverpool in November 2017 and at St. George’s Bloomsbury, London in February 2018.
Gilane Tawadros (GT): How did you come to conceive SWEET TOOTH
as a performance work?
Elaine Mitchener (EM): Musical ideas spring from the strangest sources.
The idea for SWEET TOOTH came from a shared addiction of Scottish
Tablet with my late father. That crumbly sweet substance sparked many
questions in my mind concerning the deadly cost to human life and livelihood of
one race in order to feed the addiction and greed of another; and how far people
will go to satisfy their desire to gain wealth and satiate an appetite.
The Sugar Trade and the enslavement of millions of Africans, represented the
zenith of capitalism; in other words, the removal of its most costly item: paying
people for their work. By dehumanising one race, another gained in prosperity
and wealth and the vast funds received in turn were used to develop Western
society at all levels – education, culture, medicine, science – which we profit from
How could I tackle this vast topic through music? Was music the right medium
through which to examine this area of human history? Did I have a right to? I had
no idea how all-consuming this exciting journey would be.
My practice works primarily in movement and voice. Over the last five years
working collaboratively with the choreographer Dam Van Huynh, I have created
a technique which is grounded in classical vocal training (my teacher Jacqueline
Bremar is brilliant) but also enables me to employ the physicality of
contemporary dance. My philosophy of encounter-enact-engage allows me to
develop and devise works combining found texts, sound, movement,
vocalization, improvisation, and collaboration to create intimate and
experimental music theatre performance pieces. Pulling together a team of
extraordinary musicians, Sylvia Hallett, Marks Sanders and Jason Yarde along
with Dam Van Huynh and invaluable guidance and insight from historian Christer
Petley, we undertook two years of research and development.
I started creating from a blank space. The only definite idea I had was that I knew
I wanted people to experience the work live and that sound would be integral.
Through reading research, discussion and learning, it became clear to me that
the work required a strong aural basis and not just a physical one. Meditating on
what it might have been for enslaved Africans to experience the unknown and
the sound and smell of fear, the strength, self-determination and resolve of
rebellion; the essential activity of song and dance as a constant reminder of one’s
own humanity, history, tradition; these became the cornerstones of the work
from which I was able to build a skeletal framework to hang ideas on.
The next stage was to ask the team to engage with the topic fully and to find
their own personal ways into it. To embody the feelings for themselves; place
themselves and their families into the situation and to express their reactions
musically. What became clear (and what I had in mind) was that this work was
not going to be a comfortable experience for us or the audience and it ought
not be. I will have failed if people applaud loudly, whoop and cheer. So far the
response has been silent reflection and thoughtful discussion afterwards, but I
can’t prevent an audience from responding to the work in a more enthusiastic
GT: SWEET TOOTH is a very uncomfortable piece to experience and it is an
experience rather than a spectacle. It draws you in to a sequence of episodes or
movements but has no overarching, linear narrative as you would expect from
a fictional novel or a historical account. Can you say some more about the
piece’s relationship to historical research and how your approach to source
material differs from that of a historian?
EM: It’s such an immense subject that it was very clear early on that I would
need to work with an expert to check facts and to alert me to current research
and resources that might prove useful to the development of my ideas around
the work and how to present it. Working with Dr Christer Petley proved
invaluable and I believe we learnt a lot from each other. I wanted to avoid
voyeurism, victim ‘porn’ or any kind of spectacle and the idea was to try and
evoke an unnerving sense of tension, claustrophobia and entrapment. Of course,
one can never know what that really felt like, but we have narratives and
accounts, diaries which describe each step of the experience, albeit mainly from
the oppressor’s point of view.
Not being a historian enabled me to focus on other aspects of the source
material. Being a musician, I decided to draw the audience’s attention to sound
as the narrative, the sound of people, their voices, their expression of rage, fear,
defiance, joy, comfort. These would be reminders that, although reduced by
their oppressors to being part of the huge machinery of slavery, enslaved
Africans were people who dreamed, loved, hoped and resisted, and finally
The vast knowledge base of historians is enviable. They are able to digest what
they’ve painstakingly researched and re-present it for public understanding.
However, I find that this is all conducted in a clinical way, as though these events
are being viewed under a microscope or at arm’s length. The purpose of SWEET
TOOTH was to give a voice to those millions of people lost to slavery. Recalling
their given names reminds us of their humanity. Referencing their work songs
and rituals allows us to honour the culture which they developed and the legacy
of which remains to this day. My job was to liberate the dry historical facts and
somehow breathe life into them.
It was a challenge for me to view the historical material researched with an
academic eye. I had to seek ways to absorb information, much of which was
deeply upsetting, disturbing and difficult to accept. I had to digest it as historical
fact and allow myself to find a creative and artistic response to it.
My decision to work abstractly with words was a conscious one in that I did not
want them to obstruct the sound experience. Where words are used, they are
used sparingly and are quickly fractured. Because SWEET TOOTH is also a visual
work, I felt strongly that any ‘narrative’ could be felt and heard without the use
GT: Can you say something about the episodic structure of SWEET TOOTH
which has been conceived as a series of distinct chapters or movements?
EM: The decision to call these movements ‘chapters’ was a deliberate way of
anchoring the work and the fact that it concerns a tragic episode, not only in the
history of black people but in the history of humanity. This holocaust has
repeated itself at different periods of human history. I employed a creative
semantic approach to liberate the source text material from books. Slavery in
the British Caribbean was operated at a conveniently safe distance (not within
the British Isles as in North America), and therefore I couldn’t draw upon
personal familial accounts or records. In this way I was more like an historian
because of the slight impersonal distance.
GT: You are also a jazz musician, working with other musicians and using
improvisation and other techniques to create unique sounds and compositions.
How has this influenced the way in which you approached and composed
EM: I consider myself as a musician who works across and draws on difference
genres: experimental/free-jazz, avant-garde contemporary new music, gospel,
Afro-Caribbean (Jamaican) music, free-improvisation and I think these influences
can be heard in this work. I never thought about ‘composing’ the work. Having
worked with composers and performed works by composers, I realised that my
approach would need to be different to work effectively. I always wanted a sonic
experience and with movement SWEET TOOTH is a work that is seen and felt.
Early on I imagined it as a radio piece (so I’m pleased it was eventually broadcast
on BBC Radio 3), but as the piece developed over two years it told me that it
also had to be a visual / movement experience. Lighting also plays a musical part
in this work and Alex Johnston has designed incredibly striking lighting moods
which move the work forward.
The artists I have brought together for this project bring with them a wealth of
experience and expertise along with an openness to trying new ideas. We are
all well versed in the world of free-improvisation, however, for SWEET TOOTH
I knew its musical world couldn’t be defined or restricted in this way. So we
came together to workshop and research ideas and devise the piece along with
Dam who was invaluable in helping us to access organic natural movement whilst
Over time I was able to construct a method of structured improvisation upon
which we were able to hang the skeletal form of the work. This method allows
us the freedom to improvise whilst retaining the structural, musical form of the
work. So although the concept is mine, how we arrive at realising it is very much
a collective effort. My job was to work out what to retain or mull over an idea
and to have the confidence to discard something because it’s not right for the
work. It’s very important that each of us feels ownership of the work and finds
our own narrative that can be communicated. It then becomes a powerfully
direct statement of humanity to humanity.
GT: The events and experiences to which SWEET TOOTH refers took place
in the historical past. What can this past teach us in the present?
EM: According to Michael Craton in his book Testing the Chains: Resistance to
Slavery in the British West Indies, ‘Historians who believe history to be the story
of man’s rise to civilisation tend to define civilisation to include the acceptance
by all classes of their place with the socioeconomic system.’ Even from a liberal
point of view its appearance is essentially that of accommodation and
acceptance. These ideas have been challenged by writers and commentators
such as CLR James and Herbert Aptheker, also the Jamaican writer and cultural
theorist Sylvia Wynter and her theory of the human, which she discusses in her
essay “Unsettling the Colonially of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the
Human, after Man, Its Overrepresentation – An Argument.” The Atlantic Slave
Trade, the Middle Passage, which largely took place during the so-called Age of
Enlightenment, marked a brutal and catastrophic period of human history. The
past teaches us a lesson that we seem unable to understand and learn from:
humanity’s capacity for inhumanity. Professor Catherine Hall said that it’s easy
to think that those involved in the slave trade are different to us, that we are
different to them. We are not. Only when we acknowledge this simple truth are
we able to change and make changes.
Gilane Tawadros is Vice-Chair of the Stuart Hall Foundation.
SWEET TOOTH has been supported with public funding from Arts Council England.
Commissioned by Bluecoat in partnership with the Stuart Hall Foundation, London and The
International Slavery Museum with further support from PRSF Open Fund, Edge Hill
University, John Hansard Gallery, Centre 151 and St George’s Bloomsbury.
Stuart Hall Foundation is a registered charity in England and Wales. Charity number: 1159343