Alan Bissett’s It Wisnae me, performed at the Traverse this week as part of their “A Play, A Pie and A Pint” season of short lunchtime shows, is an unsubtle and unflinching look at the role Scotland played in the establishing, funding, perpetuating, and benefitting from the atrocities of the slave trade.
It opens with two white male actors, fooling about in an apelike mime, infantile, stealing from each other, squabbling; portending to their later behaviour. From all fours they stand up, evolving to move like humans and taking on stereotypes, one of an English Rees-Mogg Tory (Andrew John Tait) and the other a working-class Scotsman (Ali Watt). They become representations of their respective countries, too unpleasant to carry off the comedy that their interactions attempt. Their dynamics are caricatured, and recognisable, Scotland ever petulant, regularly drunk, England domineering and dense. Bowler hat versus Jimmy hat, and both detestable here.
For a little too long it is a scene of white men bickering. It then becomes an interrogation. Tait’s England now a policeman on an unwarranted and fragile moral high ground, who grills Scotland on his imperial actions and attitudes whist Scotland squirms, deflecting blame to the Union, suggesting he was forced into the triangular trade by English bullies. This is punctuated by various vignettes, more England versus Scotland squabbles, and fleeting criticisms of the Highland clearances and the Darien Scheme.
It is not until two thirds of the way through the piece that we hear from a black voice. Danielle Jam enters the stage just as Scotland concludes a rant admitting to historic white supremacy and colonial policies. Jam is bold and poised, her clipped Scottish accent commanding the space. She asks the white members of her audience why, in Black History Month, is it this story that should be told, rather than one of non-white Scots or visitors to Scotland. For Bisset, the reason is that Scotland has not yet adequately acknowledged the extent to which it still benefits from slave money.
Accompanied by photographs, illustrations and testimonies, Jam’s character spares no details of the horrors of the Slave Trade, as she responds to what England and Scotland have discussed. The final character she portrays is the abolitionist James McCune Smith, the first African-American man to receive a Medical degree. Significantly, he studied for his degree at the University of Glasgow, funded by the Glasgow Emancipation Society. This places Glasgow into a subtly different context.
Interestingly, the script focuses on the residue and responsibilities of Glasgow more than any other Scottish city; Buchanan Street and others are highlighted for their commemorations of Glaswegian tobacco merchants. The foundations of Edinburgh are problematic, yet the culpability of Scotland’s capital gets remarkably little mention.
The piece was inconclusive, the 50 minutes too short to fully investigate the subject. England and Scotland leave the stage in agreement and acknowledgment of their shared culpability but with no convincing resolution. Whilst the script lacked in direction, in time, and in non-white voices, it nonetheless provided an interesting and rarely heard self-critique of the Scottish tendency to deflect historic culpability to the larger English powers, and was well-executed by its cast.