Black History Month: The Ancestors, a film shot at Portchester Castle to have its premiere in the historic grounds

A FILM shot at Portchester Castle exploring the little-known history of Black revolutionaries to get its premiere at St Mary’s Church in the historic site’s grounds.
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Originally created as an outdoor theatre production by National Youth Theatre, English Heritage's Shout Out Loud and the University of Warwick, The Ancestors was adapted into a film in response to Covid-19 and will now be screened during Black History Month.

The Ancestors is a reinterpretation of a play about the Haitian Revolution written at the castle by French captives in the early 19th century, and seeks to restore the lost voices of 18th century Black revolutionaries.

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In the late 18th and early 19th centuries Portchester Castle served as a prison for soldiers captured by British forces during the Napoleonic wars. In 1807, a play entitled The Revolutionary Philanthropist or Slaughter on Haiti was performed by prisoners of war aboard a prison ship in the shadow of the castle – the play, set in 1793, tackled the incendiary topic of the uprising of enslaved people in the Caribbean, but was told from the colonial perspective and was steeped in racist attitudes.

The Ancestors, filmed at Portchester Castle, is to get its premiere in the historis site's grounds on October 29, 2022. Picture by Tolu ElufowojuThe Ancestors, filmed at Portchester Castle, is to get its premiere in the historis site's grounds on October 29, 2022. Picture by Tolu Elufowoju
The Ancestors, filmed at Portchester Castle, is to get its premiere in the historis site's grounds on October 29, 2022. Picture by Tolu Elufowoju

The Ancestors, created by a female-led team, sets out to amplify the voices and stories of Black women who have often been erased from historical retellings.

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Written by Lakesha Arie-Angelo and directed by Jade Lewis, it has been developed alongside a group Black female NYT members, local participants and director Mumba Dodwell.

Dominique Bouchard, head of learning and interpretation at English Heritage said: ‘We are thrilled to work with the National Youth Theatre on such an inspiring project. Portchester Castle is a very special place – its connections to the Caribbean during the Revolutionary Wars offers insight into a lesser-known part of England’s story, and Portchester’s history as a theatre means this project has a particularly powerful resonance. Our work with the University of Warwick continues to reveal more about the lives of the prisoners at Portchester and we hope this play will inspire people to seek out the hidden stories of our sites.’

The Ancestors, filmed at Portchester Castle, is to get its premiere in the historis site's grounds on October 29, 2022. Picture by Tolu ElufowojuThe Ancestors, filmed at Portchester Castle, is to get its premiere in the historis site's grounds on October 29, 2022. Picture by Tolu Elufowoju
The Ancestors, filmed at Portchester Castle, is to get its premiere in the historis site's grounds on October 29, 2022. Picture by Tolu Elufowoju
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Professor Kate Astbury from The University of Warwick said: ‘It has been a privilege to see how the creative team have taken the original French prisoner-of-war play about the Haiti revolution and reworked it for a 21st-century audience.

‘The new play vividly brings to life the struggle for emancipation of the real-life revolutionaries – men, women and children – from the Caribbean who were held at Portchester Castle in 1796-97. It is very exciting to see my team’s archival research being used in this way.’

Lakesha Arie-Angelo added: ‘I have always been inquisitive about stories of Black folks in the UK prior to the Windrush era and even more keen to learn more about the breadth of the diaspora and develop more creative work that depicts this, so this project was an exciting prospect.

‘Working with passionate and knowledgeable historians and academics and talented young people was a real privilege to gain great insight to this historical context and great an important new piece for today.’

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The Ancestors will be screened at St Mary’s Church, Portchester Castle, on Saturday, October 29 from 4-7pm. Audience members are welcome to bring a picnic and food and drink will also be available to buy on site.

Book your free tickets at english-heritage.org.uk.