I was invited to take part in a post-show discussion about the history behind Catalina by Untold Theatre group which tells the story of the Moorish, black servant of the first wife of Henry VIII Katherine of Aragon.
This was a very sparse production in Colchester Art Centre’s small intimate space, that intimacy was reflected in the small company of actors, each actor playing at least two roles. Just as the actors moved effortlessly from one character to another so the stage's setting moved from one space to another thru lighting changes, moving a few props around created marital bed chambers, a church and a tavern, all done convincingly, to great effect.
The device used to explain and develop Catlaina’s life story was witty, effective and totally believable. The story was told with humour and dignity thru some very effective acting. I was particularly impressed how they handled Leon Stewart a black actor playing at one stage the role of a white character, for those in the audience who were not so sure, Zainab Hassan's character Catalina asks for the house lights to be brought up and she speaks directly to the audience.
She addresses those who are concerned about the black actor playing a white character that they should take a picture of the black actor with their mobile phones. Zainab then encouraged them to find an app to convert Leon’s face to white, so if they had any concerns about a black actor playing a white character they could look at their phone rather than the stage. Zainab then returned to Catalina; a novel twist on colour blind acting.
The sex scenes were equally inventive with mostly everything left to the imagination, in doing so creating some of the most highly believable and memorable scenes of the entire evening.
The story upon which the play was based unfolded at good pace thru out the evening, I was waiting for the appearance of the other known Black in Henry’s court ‘John Blanke, the blacke Trumpet’. John was a contemporary of Catalina so it would have been natural for them to have met at some point, as you can see for their mentions in the records, wee know from at least 1507 to 1511 they were present in Henry’s and Katherine’s courts. We have a picture of John, in fact he is the first Black to be portrayed in British painting, from the College of Arms 1511 Westminster Tournament roll, while sadly we have no pictorial record of Catalina so can only speculate ( maybe like Velasquez's KitchenMaid or an Anonymous painting of a Mulatto women from Mexico dated 1711) on how she might have looked.
However don’t let John’s absence take anything away from the play and its production. Untold Theatre group have created a fun, innovative and informative production shedding light on a character – Catlina – who we know tantalizingly little about yet might have played a part in acts that fundamentally changed the history of England forever.