Keti Koti Monologues at Koninklijke Schouwburg, The Hague

There is much talk at the moment about war crimes, atrocities committed by the Russians in Ukraine. In any theatre of war there are crimes, unjustified killings committed on both sides. To a certain extent one can understand soldiers in the heat of battle behaving badly, one can understand them getting drunk and going on the rampage. What is more difficult to understand is how a government can have the abuse of human rights as its policy. Recent history unreservedly condemns the likes of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot – and now Putin, but is there a statute of limitations on crimes against humanity? Just because something happened two or three hundred years ago does that make it any less bad?

Slavery has always existed and always will, but now most of it takes place far from our enlightened shores so can be ignored. The crime against humanity that was the 18th and 19th century Atlantic slave trade was not committed by power crazed dictators but by civilized, sophisticated western European countries – us, in fact. The main culprit was England with Spain and Portugal also main players. One country that is less associated with slavery is The Netherlands. They went about their dreadful business more surreptitiously, keeping a long arm’s length, keeping their hands off the dirty end of the stick. But, out of all the countries involved, it was The Netherlands that was among the last to abolish slavery. Slavery in Surinam, its main colony in the Americas, was not abolished until 1863, but not fully implemented until ten years later. Slavery continued in the Dutch East Indies well into the twentieth century.

On 1st July each year The Netherlands commemorates the abolition of slavery in Surinam with Keti Koti, the Breaking of Chains. With the Keti Koto Monologues STET, The English Theatre, has curated an event bringing together mainly black performers to give an insight into the legacy of slavery and what it means now to be one of its descendants.

The performances take place over three nights, each with small variations and consist of four separate pieces. Last night Daniëlle Zawadi and Rosa Weekers both gave compelling spoken word performances on different aspects of being black in a white society, while Ritzah State’s physical performance was music based and involved a master-class in folding a jacket and some rolling around on the floor. A white male academic was also on hand to provide some objective insights and historical detail, although none of us white folk will ever understand what it is to be black any more than an ornithologist will ever understand what it is like to be a bird.

Although it would be inappropriate to describe Keti Koto Monologues as entertaining, it was certainly engrossing and enlightening with some captivating performances. Hats off to STET for mounting it.

Maybe the most telling line in the whole evening was that the only sound a black person can make without identifying themselves as such is crying. The wounds may have healed but the scars are still there.  Michael Hasted   18th June 2022