St. George’s Anglican Church is putting the finishing touches on the forthcoming performance of “Mary Slessor: Great White Ma.”
Written by resident Colin Wilson, the play tells the compelling story of Mary Slessor, a late 19th century Scottish missionary who served the people of the Calabar region in southern Nigeria.
Slessor lived among the people and spread the Christian faith. She was also a crusader for women’s rights and social justice, in addition to serving as a magistrate.
Commenting on why he chose to write a play about the life of Slessor, Wilson said it is an effort to honor the legacy of a remarkable woman.
“Her faith was extraordinary,” Wilson said.
“She was way ahead of her time and did not conform to the norm. She was tiny but was afraid of no one. She loved everyone, especially the downtrodden, and spoke for woman’s rights. Even when she was ill, and she was ill a lot, that did not stop her working. Nothing stood in her way.”
He added: “It’s my bit for gender equality. Mary Slessor accomplished so much, yet the exploits of her countryman and fellow missionary, Dr. David Livingstone, are much better known in the West.
“After I had written ‘The Judith Code’ – based on a Bible story found in the Apocrypha and therefore not well known – a friend of mine, who is Scottish and resides there, asked me if I had heard of Mary Slessor, the missionary who went to Africa just before the first World War. I confessed I hadn’t. My friend was not surprised but told me she was an amazing woman and she needed wider recognition.”
Wilson spent six months researching Slessor’s life, even visiting the tenement flat in Dundee, Scotland, where she grew up. It then took the playwright a further six months to write an initial script, and then two months to re-write and edit it.
“Mary was a prolific letter writer – over 100 are still existing and there have been a small number of books written about her. So I had my source material,” Wilson explained.
One of the main challenges for the playwright was how to bring Slessor’s story to life on the stage.
“I tried a number of things and after a few pages I realized it wouldn’t work,” Wilson said. “I knew I needed a narrator, but he had to be connected to her. I found the perfect candidate. The man who loved her and she loved him too – Charles Morrison. They never married and he died in a fire soon after she told him they could not be together. Everyone loves a lover no matter how tragic. It worked.”
The initial play has been adapted for the production at St. George’s Church and is set in the modern day, at the church’s Bargain Store. A cast of 16 will perform, all but one playing multiple roles. The title role is filled by 11-year-old Jamie Kaye Smith, a young graduate of the Cayman National Cultural Foundation’s Summer Arts Camp. Slessor’s love interest, Charles Morrison, is played by Gerald Watts, a seasoned actor and a member of St. George’s Church. Other cast members include Sharon Marshall, David Hunter, Gabrielle David, Nicholas Graham and Fiona Pimentel.
The playwright said there have been many challenges to staging the play at St. George’s.
“To make it simple but believable,” Wilson said. “No sets, just simple props, minimal costumes. It leaves a lot to the imagination of the audience. I believe the way we start the play in 2014 and end it back as we started will overcome the need for the special lighting that I would have wanted, even for this version.”
Despite the fact that the play is set in the modern era, the playwright said it is still very accurate.
“There is nothing made up nor added,” Wilson said. “There was no need to dramatize anything. Slessor’s life was dramatic enough. Some of the characters I have had to change to female as I did not have enough men to perform them here. Some of the latter scenes in the original I had to omit for this version because of the restraints on the staging, and they are referred to only.”
Wilson has written more than 80 plays and scripts for local productions, including for Pirates Week. To date, six plays have been published, and four have been performed internationally. His first published play, “Cry In The Night,” was performed in Blackpool, England, earlier this year.
Wilson said his most recent play will appeal to everyone.
“You do not have to be religious to enjoy it,” he said. “It’s a fabulous story, full of action, laughter, sadness, even some horrific moments when twin babies are put to death. But Mary Slessor’s life was a dance, and one of the big music numbers is a country song from Lee Ann Womack – ‘I Hope You Dance.’ The other music is mainly African, except for a waltz.”
The play runs Oct. 9-12 at the St. George’s Anglican Church Hall, 64 Courts Road, off Eastern Avenue. Show time is 7 p.m.; Sunday’s show is at 3 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults and $5 for children, available from the church office. Tickets may also be purchased on the night.