Bound Voices

Celia, a Slave, by Barbara Seyda, (Yale University Press), 112 pages, release date 16 August, 2016

Barbara Seyda’s Celia, a Slave deservedly won the 2015 Yale Drama Series competition. I’ve been thinking about this review for a while and just don’t know that I can do this title justice, but I’ll give it a try.

The framework on which Celia, a Slave hangs is the trial of the play’s title character for the murder of her white owner. The play lacks a linear narrative (a statement of fact, not a criticism) so understanding that context helps, but theatre-goers and readers are left to construct a narrative for themselves out of the material Seyda presents. The play offers a series of non-chronological monologues that make substantial use of legal documents and archival records from that era. The voices of the play, African American and white, slave and master are real, not an imagining of what might have happened, been done, been said, been thought—but the actual words and thoughts as recorded at that time.

I hope someday to see a production of Celia, a Slave, but whether or not I do, the play itself is worth reading. It moves from monologue to monologue, using lighting to isolate the individual characters so that they stand alone, even on a stage that holds a number of actors. This series of individual presentations puts the reader/viewer inside each character by its elimination of an “outside,” of a more comforting, more acceptable voice one can listen to and identify with while being presented with painful truths.

The structure and voices of Celia, a Slave are challenging, but the truths the play uncovers are essential for understanding, not just Celia’s time, but our own as well.

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