Wordlessness speaks volumes in Century Song: an attempt to redress the untold history of black women in the 20th century. On a bare white stage, soprano Neema Bickersteth sings shapeless sounds and unfolds a series of expressionist gestures. Behind her, video projections roll through the decades as decor shifts, fashion mutates and art charts changing times.
It’s not an easy watch – more a performative installation or action than a piece of theatre per se. Incomprehensibility is partly the point: when a portion of history hasn’t been written down, it becomes that much harder to get your head around it. Instead, we rely on instinctive interpretation; a vague sense of what Bickersteth’s voice and body seem to convey.
Loose narrative threads start to cohere: a woman who starts in a natty servant’s dress, her hands resisting the pull to scrub the floor, transforms, Cinderella-style, for the Roaring Twenties. Sixty-odd years on, she’s a suited city exec spinning between skyscrapers in a cyclone of work. If images of labour recur, they crisscross with leisure. One video sequence slides through the shifts in home tech: old TVs to tablets, vinyl to earbuds.
There’s a stern beauty to it all, albeit undercut by some naff computer graphics, but Century Song remains an intellectual experience, rather than the felt one it wants to be. In weaving through a century of change, it all ends up looking and sounding much the same. There’s meaning in that, mind: has anything really changed for black women?