In 1803, British colonel Edward Despard was executed after being found guilty of plotting to take over the government. His impassioned gallows speech calling for liberty and justice for the oppressed across the empire was considered deeply shocking. Despard’s highly public life and death have inspired Belize, a musical bioplay fantasia from downtown ensemble the Talking Band.
The title refers to the land once known as the Bay of Honduras, a British settlement that was the scene of Despard’s brutal political education. There he would also meet an African American woman, Catherine, who eventually became his wife and strongest ally, as well as an activist in her own right.
Director and writer Paul Zimet surrounds Despard with a clamor of real-life historical figures who conjure the vast range of ethnicities, climates, and ideologies that helped determine his fate. There is the dyspeptic Lord Nelson and his spin doctor of a mistress, Lady Hamilton, a kind of Georgian Karen Hughes; William Blake and his devoted wife, given to taking tea in the nude; and Olaudah Equiano, an eloquent voice of the abolitionist movement.
Also peopling the stage are the powerfully anonymous, in the form of two choruses: the White Boys of Coolrain (Irish peasant guerrillas who attacked Anglo-Protestant farms at night wearing women’s dresses) and most spectacularly, the Black Mummers (Caribbean paraders fabulously attired by costumer Kiki Smith). These groups speak-sing stage directions and droll critiques of colonialist rhetoric.
Amid this riot of color and sound, Zimet’s ostensible focus on Despard’s sincere, unself-aggrandizing man for all seasons seems forced. The real protagonist of the play feels like the push of history, in all its self-serving glory: Belize is most alive when its peripheral characters steal the spotlight, courtesy of Ellen Maddow’s deft melodies. An account of early British forays into Central America is provided by a scrappy English capitalist who casually gets up from a game of cards to break into a song celebrating his land-grabbing grandfather. Later, we’re serenaded by a loony Lady Hamilton, who performs a ballad for her lover and their dinner guests, the King and Queen of Naples. Sure, she’s besotted with her noble hero, but she’s also trying to drown out the sounds of dissenting Neapolitans being dragged screaming to their executions.
This is history as Marxist pageant and Brechtian ballad, intercut with processions, dance, and tableaux. In short, it’s not only smart, but fun to watch. Still, staging the sweep of 19th-century British imperialism from Ireland to Nicaragua is a daunting task, and too often the play relies on story theater exposition. After a solid first hour in Belize, Zimet feels compelled to cover so much historical and political ground on the road to the gallows that we scramble to keep our sense of direction, while simultaneously wishing for more quality time with the Despards.
Despite charismatic performances from John Keating and Eisa Davis, the couple remains merely heroic, never fully human. In particular, Despard’s transformation from patriot to revolutionary is too schematic to offer much insight into the nature of such a conversion. Still, Belize offers a plethora of theatrical delights. Zimet and his superb collaborators vivify history—if not the extraordinary Despards—to factious, percussive effect.