Salem, a dark fantasy drama series, is set in real-life 17th-century Salem, Massachusetts, and explores what really fueled the town’s infamous witch trials in the 1600s.
Our own Ashley Madekwe was the first casting announcement of the production, way back in 2013 – slated to play central cast member Tituba. She had enjoyed a successful 5 years playing social climber Ashley Davenport in Revenge (2011-15), lovelorn Molly Lucas in Bedlam, (2011-12), Elisha in West 10 LDN (2008) and call girl Bambi/Gloria White in Secret Diary Of A Call Girl (2007-11).
In Tituba, Madekwe gets to play an ambitious, determined, loyal and powerful witch, who serves as a handmaiden to the Sibleys at the House of the Seven Gables. Abducted and enslaved as a child, Tituba became a witch as a means to avenge the molestation and murder of her family and to free herself from the inhumane oppression of her people. Despite being raised in the faith of the Christian God, she remained unanswered each time she cried out for him to save her. Then, Kanaima (“Diablo”, “Devil”, “Kanaima”, “Mephistopheles”, “Lucifer”, “Satan”) appeared to her in the woods, cared for her, empowered her and taught her everything there was to know about witchcraft. She has a vindictive streak. Later in life, Tituba becomes even more powerful, once she is imbued with the powers of a Seer.
Ashley Madekwe as Tituba in Salem (2014–2017)
This is a surprising presentation of historical fact, since the character is based on the historical Arawak figure, Tituba. She was an enslaved South American woman who sailed from Barbados to mainland America with her owner Simon Parris of Danvers, Massachusetts. She was the first of the initial 3 women to be accused of practicing witchcraft during the 1692 Salem witch trials, to which she confessed. She also claimed that local women Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne also participated. She was imprisoned and later released.
This is also not the first fictional incarnation of Tituba. In American Horror Story: Coven (S3, 2013-14), Gabourey Sidibe plays Queenie, a witch and descendant of Tituba. Angela Bassett’s Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau suggests that her magic came from her Arawak ancestry. In the novel, Calligraphy of the Witch (2007) by Alicia Gaspar de Alba, she is an Arawak Indian from Guyana, fluent in several languages, and the only person in the Boston area who understands Spanish.
Moi, Tituba, Sorciere… Noire de Salem (I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem) is a 1986 French fiction novel by Guadeloupean writer Maryse Condé, which won the French Grand Prix award for women’s literature. Condé’s Tituba is biracial, born in Barbados to a young African slave woman raped by an English sailor. The author ties this story in with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter, by having Tituba thrown into a cell with a pregnant Hester Prynne, Hawthorne’s heroine. Translated into English in 1992 by Richard Philcox under the English translation of the title, it includes a foreword by activist Angela Davis, who calls the book an “historical novel about the black witch of Salem”. The English translation was hailed as an “imaginative subversion of historical records forms a critique of contemporary American society and its ingrained racism and sexism,” and it has also been analysed in literary academic journals and is frequently assigned as mandatory reading in college English classes.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote Tituba into his 1868 play Giles Corey of the Salem Farms, as “the daughter of a man all black and fierce…He was an Obi man, and taught [her] magic… Obeah (also spelled Obi) is a specifically African and Afro-American system of magic.”
She featured prominently in Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible, and the 1957 and 1996 film adaptations of the play, portrayed by Louise Stubbs and Charlayne Woodward respectively.
Tituba of Salem Village was written by Ann Petry in 1956 for children 10 and up, portraying Tituba as a Bajan woman who tells stories about life in Barbados to the village girls. Petry was the first African American woman writer with book sales topping a million copies for her 1946 novel The Street.
Maybe it’s not so surprising that a woman of colour has featured over the years in literary works and stage plays. Our association with the occult is just another given in the mainstream, like running fast and dancing good.
Still, check out Madekwe’s performance from the first season to the third and last. A fan petition for a 4th season was unsuccessful after the series cancellation was announced last December (2016).
All 36 episodes of Salem are currently available on Netflix.