The Lamplighter by Jackie Kay

The Lamplighter is a play about slavery and the slave trade first written and produced in 2007 and now published with a new introduction by Kay. It reads like a multi-voiced poem with a chorus and individual stories, as a few characters relate their own and others’ experiences as slaves. Interweaved with this are, as Kay discusses in the introduction, details about British involvement in the slave trade and the way in which particular cities, including Glasgow, were deeply involved, and the book ends with a list of further reading to follow up on the stories and the events from the play.

This is a powerful way of both telling specific stories about slavery and getting across a sense of the wider realities of the slave trade, both in terms of human experience and the impact upon everyday things like food (particularly sugar) and cities. The repetition and use of the chorus is particularly effective in replicating voices and getting across scale, and you can almost hear it as you read, and hear parts read in different voices. The emotion really comes across and so does the important educational element, making points about what isn’t taught in school curriculums and how the slave trade can’t be separated from the growth of British cities and the industrial revolution. Even people who don’t typically read plays should pick this one up, as the format allows Kay to tell these different stories in an approachable, moving way.