Image for Triptych Marvin with his hand over his face
NDCWales Presents

Plethu/Weave: Triptych Part 1

Short Poetry Dance Film

Please note: This video contains deliberate use of a highly offensive racial slur and images that some viewers might find distressing. These elements are relevant to the context of the artistic work which explores Wales' relationship with the transatlantic slave trade.

Triptych was written as a response to a plaque erected 2010 in Brecon, Wales, honouring the slave trader, Captain Thomas Philips. It has since been torn down. This video depicts the Part 1 of the three part poem, to hear or read parts 2 and 3 click here

Poetry and movement: Marvin Thompson

Dance: Ed Myhill

Film and Sound edit: Ed Myhill

Film: Nicola Janneh

Ed Myhill headshot

Ed Myhill
Originally from London, Ed grew up in Leeds and trained at Hammond Secondary School in Chester, followed by three years at Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance. He joined NDCWales as an apprentice in Autumn 2015 and am now a full time dancer with the Company. Ed has toured extensively across the UK and abroad including works from Alexander Ekman, Roy Assaf and Marcos Morau.

Headshot of Marvin Thompson

Marvin Thompson
Marvin Thompson was born in Tottenham, London to Jamaican parents and now lives in mountainous south Wales. His debut collection, Road Trip (Peepal Tree Press, 2020), is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. In June 2020, the Poetry Society selected Road Trip as one of five Black Lives Matter Inspiration books. In addition, Road Trip is one of 40 collections and anthologies recommended for National Poetry Day, 2020.

The Guardian described Road Trip as an ‘invigorating journey through complexities of black British family life.’

In 2019, Thompson was one of only eight writers to be awarded a grant by Literature Wales as part of the Platforming Under-Represented Writers Funding Scheme. He was also shortlisted for the 2019 Manchester Poetry Prize.

In 2016, Thompson was selected by Nine Arches Press for the Primers 2 mentoring scheme. In addition, he has an MA in creative writing.

Blog by Marvin Thompson

In the Beginning

I am a poet of Jamaican parentage. Originally from Tottenham, London, I now live in mountainous south Wales.

In June 2020, I wrote my poem ‘Triptych’ as a response to a plaque in Brecon south Wales. The plaque, unveiled in October 2010, honours the slave trader, Captain Thomas Philips. This public memorial, which has since been torn down, was an insult to the millions of people who suffered and died during the transatlantic slave trade.

At the start of our Plethu/Weave collaboration, I shared ‘Triptych’ (which also highlights my Christian beliefs) with Ed Myhill, the musician and dancer I was partnered with. I was nervous. What if Ed was uncomfortable with topics of race and identity that I often write about? Was I capable of writing a new poem for our collaboration that did not reflect my desire to make Britain a more welcoming place for my Dual Heritage children and step-children?

Ed, who is of White British heritage, emailed me about ‘Triptych’. Reading the first few lines of his correspondence, I acknowledge my own prejudices. I would not have been so anxious if I was working with an artist of colour. Such an artist may have had a similar skin colour to me. However, who is to say they would have wanted to produce art so closely focused on issues of racism?

As I read Ed’s email, I learnt that he been moved by ‘Triptych’. In fact, he had found part 1, an open message to Brecon Town Council, particularly poignant. To quote Ed: ‘I've been to Brecon many times and wasn’t aware of this [plaque] and it partly shocks me but also doesn’t considering the many similar instances across the UK.’ Our poem was chosen.

 

 

Conversations

During one of our initial Zoom meetings, Ed expressed reservations about working with our chosen poem. As a White creative, it was the first time he had wrestled with the theme of colonial racism and its legacies. He wondered whether he was the right person for the job. Ed’s key question was, ‘Considering the emotive power of your poem, why am I dancing?’ 

Ed’s question gets to the heart of why I found it such a pleasure to work with him. He is a deeply thoughtful and imaginative dancer and musician who was fully aware that his White body may be visually problematic when set alongside my words.

In the context of a public film, we felt the following lines needed to be handled with care:

 

          ...should I also read

          the captain’s Voyage Journal to my children

 

          and teach them they are indeed picaninnies with watermelon smiles, children

          whose ancestors have no place in history and have no name except slave

 

          or n***** and owe all to Wilberforce?

 

We agreed that my face should appear on screen to accompany the n-word. Ed understood the rule that, under almost all circumstances, only Black people are allowed to use the n-word. We also discussed the deep hurt caused when a White reporter used the n-word as part of a BBC news broadcast. The last thing we wanted was for our creative work to be overshadowed by controversy.

It should be noted that, during the final stages of post-production, Literature Wales and National Dance Company Wales decided to add a content warning to our video. Both Ed and I agreed that this was appropriate.

 

 

Filming and Form

Ed’s initial footage of his dance/movement in a cornfield and his soundscape remix of my poem were inspiring. His concept of dance often being a response to language, rather than music, was a revelation. I was also inspired by Ed’s choice of film setting. The cornfield served as a visual metaphor for the sugar cane and cotton fields of Caribbean and American plantations. My belief in our artistic vision pushed me to new heights of creativity.

Because ‘Triptych’ is a sestina poem,  certain words are repeated throughout the text. One of these repeated words is ‘sea’. Consequently, I recorded my footage in the sea at Dawlish Warren. The waves strengthened my connection to my poem’s emotional content.

Knowing that film editing is a creative process where new ideas flourish, I gave myself the freedom to explore the quirkier side of my nature. Something in the poem’s message moved me to cover my body in wet sand. Mud. It was less about the quote, ‘a mouth drying to mud’ but more about transforming myself into something that was no longer seen as human. A monster. A slave.

 

 

Editing

My belief in Ed’s creative choices meant I was happy for him to edit our film with minimal input from me. The final edit further highlights Ed’s sensitivity to the complex nature of the themes we explored.

For example, in the film, my narration of the word ‘slave’ is coupled with a shot of Ed crouched down with his arms spread. At this point, his White body is a reminder that the transatlantic slave trade is only one manifestation of slavery. It is perhaps the most famous due to its industrialised nature and its legacy that exists in today’s anti-Black racism. However, throughout history, people of all skin colours have been subjected to enslavement.

Moreover, as a visual accompaniment to my narration of the n-word, Ed chose a low angle shot from my chest up. This shot imbues my Black body with power. In this scene, I am also wearing a Black t-shirt (as opposed to a bare chest that is seen in other parts of the video). These visual elements amplify the potency of a Black person using the n-word to challenge the horrors of Britain’s colonial past. In this specific situation, I believe Ed and I have transformed the n-word into a word of defiance.

Furthermore, our choice of natural and agricultural landscapes invites viewers to grapple with the theme of ecological destruction. Humans’ focus on the environment as an economic resource mirrors our treatment of enslaved people. In both cases, the spiritual dimensions of human existence are ignored in favour of profits. Sorrow rules.

 

 

Balance

The overarching theme of the Plethu/Weave project is harmony. The video that Ed and I have created embodies this concept: a Black poet and a White dancer and musician working in artistic harmony. I am honoured to have collaborated with someone who was eager to take artistic risks.

In an email, he wrote, ‘I feel like this [film] really has purpose and I believe in what we’ve done! Thank you!’

 

Ed, thank you.

 

_

 

Triptych was written as a response to a plaque erected 2010 in Brecon, Wales, honouring the slave trader, Captain Thomas Philips. It has since been torn down.

This video depicts the Part 1 of the three part poem, to hear or read parts 2 and 3 visit:

https://www.theoutpostedproject.com
/highlights/triptych

Triptych - Part 1

Dear Brecon Town Council

A mouth drying to mud, tightening lungs and eyes on the edge of tears:
that was the reaction of my Black British body
when, on this wind-lash of a lockdown morning, I read
who you class as a role model for my Welsh, Mixed Race children.
In 2010 (during Black History Month no less) a blue plaque
was unveiled in Brecon, honouring the life of a Welsh seafarer,
Captain Thomas Phillips. A man who grew rich from selling slaves;

humans like me, my parents, my brothers. Maybe I should show this slaver
more understanding: in later life, he wrote about his ‘cargo’ with tears,
suggesting all people are ‘the work of God’s hands.’ Ah, I see.
Those were different times and Philips showed remorse so my body
should be calmed. Never mind that the racism thriving under our blue skies
was designed by men like Philips. Tell me, should I also read
the captain’s Voyage Journal to my children

and teach them they are indeed picaninnies with watermelon smiles, children 
whose ancestors have no place in history and have no name except slave
or nigger and owe all to Wilberforce? I pray that once you have read
this open message, your chest fills with a flaming desire to tear
the plaque from its wall or better yet, add an extra slab of blue slate
and inscribe it with: ‘This Welshman sailed across seas
to enslave humans, growing rich from the sweat of their Black bodies.’ 

 

Yours faithfully, Mr M. Thompson