The idea that slavery existed in past centuries is disturbing enough. To think that it still exists somewhere in the world is even more troubling. But it does go on today in northwestern Africa and other parts of the Arab world, where Africans use the force of Islam's doctrines to justify their ownership of other Africans. That contradiction is a guiding force behind the theatrical extravaganza UDU, created by jazz trombonist Craig Harris and spoken-word artist Sekou Sundiata. Blending history, autobiography, fiction, and fact, the production is an eclectic mix of musical theater, opera, and oratorio, incorporating blues, jazz, funk, gospel, African drumming, and R&B. After seeing the show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater, New York Times critic John Pareles cleverly dubbed it "diasporatorio."
UDU arrives this Saturday at Miami's Joseph Caleb Auditorium as the second presentation in Miami-Dade Community College's Cultura del Lobo Series, which commissioned the show in part. (Sundiata performed during last year's Cultura del Lobo offerings.) The stark presentation starts out with Ntianu, a literate slave in present-day Mauritania, who discovers a book in her master's library recounting the story of a past slave and possible ancestor named UDU. Realizing it's the same tale she was told as a child by her grandmother, she is inspired to escape. Only hers is not the happiest of endings. She finds herself free in one sense, but she remains detained in a refugee camp.
In conjunction with UDU, two lectures will be held featuring Mauritanian abolitionist and women's-rights activist Habsa Dia and filmmaker/author Samuel Cotton. The show's text, which mixes poetry, prose, and dialogue, was inspired by and is adapted from classic slave narratives and from Cotton's 1998 book, Silent Terror: A Journey into Contemporary African Slavery. Cotton's riveting tome aims to convince us that the Emancipation Proclamation did not guarantee ownership of humans would cease on an international level. As he notes: "Slavery is slavery, and slavery is wrong -- no matter who engages in it."