Black Plays in Context
“At the beginning there can be no nation without a theatre”
—Edouard Glissant, French Martiniquan writer & thinker,
one of the most influential figures in Caribbean thought & cultural commentary, shortlisted for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992
re-VIEW is a project of readings to raise awareness of the living legacy of African, Caribbean and Black British plays produced in Britain across the generations. Each evening of staged readings is followed by a discussion on the themes raised of race, class, family, identity and migration.
The inaugural evening took place in London on October 31st, 2019. Produced by Nick Awde, Stefania Bochicchio, Sophia Jackson & isabel Appio, the plays were directed by Kaleya Baxe. This was collaboration with the National Theatre’s Black Plays Archive (BPA), the online catalogue for the first professional productions of African, Caribbean and Black British plays produced in Britain, and part of Draper Hall’s Black History Month 2019.
The excerpts were taken from: Leave Taking (1987), a wry, gentle drama about two generations dealing with the friction of identity by Winsome Pinnock; Skyvers (1963), a stark drama about alienation in secondary school by Barry Reckord; London Calling (1938), a comedy about Caribbean identity by Una Marson, one of Jamaica’s most significant feminists and writers; and The Blinkards (1915), a satire by Kobina Sekyi that lampoons the Anglo aspirations of the Ghanaian society of his time.
Separated by a gap of a quarter of a century or so between the time of their writing, these four plays offer an overview of the evolving exploration of identity as seen through the eyes of black writers in the UK, particularly the way the inequality of class affects the way we all think and behave.
re-VIEW is a UK Centre of the International Theatre Institute / ITI/UNESCO initiative in association with media partner Afridiziak Theatre News, the UK’s only website dedicated to celebrating African-Caribbean theatre
by Kobina Sekyi (Ghana), 1915
The Blinkards is a comedy by Ghanaian Kobina Sekyi (1892-1956) which takes as its theme the damaging influence of Western culture on African societies. Written in 1915, it was first staged by members of the Cosmopolitan Club in Cape Coast (in the Gold Coast, later to become Ghana). ‘Blinkard’ is an English word meaning a dim-witted person or idiot, especially in the sense of someone who ignores or avoids issues – a description that clearly applies to most of the larger-than-life characters in this satire which involves a high society European-style marriage that is broken off in favour of a traditional Ghanaian wedding and somehow lands the hapless bride in court on charges of bigamy. Sekyi himself was a prominent lawyer from a wealthy Gold Coast family and became a major figure in the West African nationalist movements between 1920 and 1952. He came to the UK twice. In 1910 he was sent by his family to study philosophy at University College London, leaving with his degree in 1913. On his second trip to the UK in 1915, his ship was torpedoed by the Germans off the Irish coast and it was reported that survivors tried to refuse him a place on the lifeboats because he would take the place of a white person. Undeterred, he become a barrister – and also gained his MA in philosophy. After he was called to the Bar in 1918, Sekyi returned home to practise law. His philosophy studies had introduced him to sociology and this helped him develop his deep interest in the intricacies of British society and culture, particularly class, reflected in the Ghanaian society lampooned in The Blinkards. The play today is considered an essential part of the African theatre canon, and its humour and incisiveness still have an impact today. What reinforces the play’s continued relevance is Sekyi’s effortlessly naturalistic use of three languages throughout the play – English, Fante and Pidgin – something done by few plays even now. As the author of such a biting indictment of the cultural loss that began with the total rejection of Africa religious belief in favour of Christianity and then all that was European, Sekyi has often been called anti-European but what he really stood for – and said so – was the value of everyone’s own identity – embodied in the fact that he was known for going into the colonial courts dressed in traditional Fante kente instead of a three-piece suit. Although his friends gave him the nickname ‘the George Bernard Shaw of West Africa’, and his novella The Anglo-Fanti was the first English-language work of its kind written in the region, he concentrated on his political writing for the rest of his career.
• The Blinkards and the Anglo-Fanti (A Short Story) (Heinemann International Literature and Textbooks, 1998).
by Una Marson (Jamaica), 1938
London Calling, Una Marson’s 1938 comedy, looks at the experience of Black international students in the UK, where she satirises not only the ignorance of the British about Caribbeans but also the loss of connection of Caribbeans with their African heritage. A group of bright young things from a fictitious African country studying and clubbing in 1930s London are unexpectedly asked by a high society English family to deliver a Christmas performance of their traditional dance and songs. The problem is, their country is so blithely Europeanised that they actually have no traditions left to draw on, and so they need to quickly make some up. Marson (1905-1965) was a prominent feminist, writer and broadcaster based in Jamaica and, like Kobina Sekyi, she devoted her work to cultural nationalism. Politics was never far from her writing, be it plays, poetry or journalism, and her focus was always on how the systems of class and racial oppression impacted on women. Before she came to the UK she had already produced one of the plays that marked the beginning of indigenous Jamaican theatre, and she had become the country’s first female editor of a Jamaican publication (The Cosmopolitan magazine, which she founded). In 1932, she came to the UK and was soon involved with the League of Coloured Peoples, the British civil rights organisation formed by Harold A Moody – it was at his home in Queen’s Road, Peckham that Marson was first based in London. During her time there, Marson’s energy and vision are reflected in the breadth of her activities, both artistic and political, including co-writing a play with Horace D Vaz entitled At What a Price. It was initially staged in 1934 at the YMCA’s Central Club in Great Russell Street and later performed at the Scala Theatre. The play, in which Marson performed too as part of an integrated cast, was intended as a fundraiser for the LCP, but was reported as failing to make money. However, its importance extended far beyond the financial, as it was the first in London to be written and performed by an entirely black creative team. It was reported that “we did not make money but we made history”. Her activism for LCP brought her into contact with African nationalists, particularly Sekyi’s homeland, the Gold Coast. She returned to Jamaica in 1936 and staged London Calling there – another play with integrated casting – three years after its composition. She returned to London in 1938 where she became the BBC’s first black female employee – a contemporary press article hails her as ‘The Girl Who Looks after the West Indian Service’ and she went on to develop the Caribbean Voices radio programme. A famous photograph from the BBC shows a group of BBC journalists with Marson at their centre as well as George Orwell and TS Eliot. She returned to Jamaica in 1945 to work in publishing. Although she seems to have written less in this period, her reputation as a writer and thinker has continued to grow to this day.
• Pocomania and London Calling (Blouse & Skirts Books/National Library of Jamaica, 2002).
• Una Marson: Selected Poems (Caribbean Modern Classics, Peepal Tree Press, 2011).
by Barry Reckord (Jamaica), 1963
Skyvers is Barry (Barrington) Reckord’s biting urban drama, written in 1963 and set in 1960s London, focusing on a group of boys as they spend the last few days at their comprehensive school. Set in South London, the play looks at alienation and entrapment, for both boys and girls, bounded by sex, violence and the prospect of a lifetime of dull dead-end jobs. Reckord (1926-2011) had come from Jamaica to the UK on a scholarship in 1950 to study at Cambridge University. He was already writing plays as a student and several were performed at London’s Royal Court Theatre – he is claimed as the first Black Briton to have had a play on there – sometimes directed by his brother Lloyd Reckord (1925-2015), who was also an actor and film maker. His intermittent work in teaching over the decades – in Jamaica, Britain and Canada – was sidelined by his passion for writing. His experiences in London’s comprehensive school system provided compelling material for Skyvers in particular. Reckord worked as a teacher and used his eye of the Other to throw a mirror up to British society in a way that few British-born playwrights could. As ‘authentic’ theatre, not only is Skyvers unforgiving and stark like the kitchen sink dramas of the early sixties, it is also fearless, telling the uncomfortable truth about society in its own language like his peers Alan Sillitoe and Ken Loach. In the 1950s and 60s, when black playwriting was just being ‘discovered’ in Britain, Reckord was among a remarkable wave of writers, including Wole Soyinka and Errol John, to have their work produced. According to director and producer Yvonne Brewster: “A claim might even be made that he was the first of this small band to enter the scene, if one takes into account a small fringe production of his first play Della [staged as Adella by his brother Lloyd in London in 1954] – now retitled Flesh for a Tiger.” In 1961 the Royal Court Theatre produced Reckord’s You in Your Small Corner, which was then adapted for ITV’s Play of the Week series in 1962, and is now thought to contain the first interracial kiss on television – between Lloyd Reckord and Elizabeth MacLennan in the story of a relationship between a young middle-class West Indian and his white working-class girlfriend. Skyver’s first production, also at the Royal Court, was staged in 1963 with an all-white cast that included David Hemmings, and is considered by Guardian critic Michael Billington to be “one of the key plays of the 1960s”. Reckord continued to live and work in the UK until shortly before his death in 2011, when he had already moved back to Jamaica five years earlier to be with family. While his eye for injustice in society was said to have limited his later writing, his reputation remained undiminished and in 2012, the Barry Reckord Bursary was launched, open to black, Asian and minority ethnic artists, designed to encourage new playwrights.
• For the Reckord (a collection of three plays by Barry Reckord: Flesh to a Tiger; Skyvers; The White Witch), edited by Brewster (Oberon Books, 2010).
Special thanks to Margaret Reckord Bernal for granting us the rights for this reading.
by Winsome Pinnock (UK), 1987
Leave Taking very much reflects Winsome Pinnock’s background as someone born in the UK to parents who were both migrants from Jamaica (in fact the same town, Smithville). Pinnock was born in 1961 in North London: her mother who was a cleaner and her father a checker at Smithfield Meat Market. She went to university and graduated in English & Drama from Goldsmiths, University of London in 1982 and then received her MA in Modern Literature in English from Birkbeck, University of London in 1983. Leave Taking was her first full-length play, first performed at the Liverpool Playhouse in 1987 and later at the National Theatre. Plays that have followed include A Rock in Water (inspired by the life of Claudia Jones, the Trinidad & Tobago-born activist who founded Britain’s first major black newspaper West Indian Gazette in 1958), A Hero’s Welcome, Talking in Tongues and Mules. She has written for BBC Radio 4 in 1998, and written screenplays and television episodes, while also lecturing at university. Leave Taking was most recently revived at The Bush in London, directed by the theatre’s artistic director Madani Younis. It’s a wry drama, where a Jamaican mother, who has raised her two daughters on her own while working as a hospital cleaner, takes them to the local obeah woman for some traditional Caribbean soul-healing. Secrets are spilled as a result, with Uncle Brod lending wry commentary from the sidelines. It’s a play that explores the generational clash within a family that so many migrants and their British-born children can recognise: the resistance of assimilation, the pull of the old ways like obeah and the new ways of British life (some good, some not so good), yet all have the right to be British in their own way. In her introduction to the book of the script, Pinnock recalls: “I wrote Leave Taking, my first full-length play, when I was twenty-three years old. I wanted to make Enid the heroine of the play because I couldn’t recall ever seeing such a character – a hospital cleaner – as the lead in a British play. I specifically wanted to write about the black British experience as distinct from African American culture because producers often seemed to think that they are interchangeable. … Years after the play was produced at the National Theatre (1994) I was told that it was the first play written by a black British woman to have been produced there. I also learned that it was the first time that a black woman writer and director (Paulette Randall) had worked together at the venue.” It’s easy to see why The Guardian newspaper hailed her as “the godmother of black British playwrights”.
• Leave Taking (Nick Hern Books, 2018)
Special thanks to Winsome Pinnock for granting us the rights for this reading and to Mariella Johnson at Casarotto Ramsay & Associates Ltd.
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