Each age has its own part to play in its destiny, its own mark to leave on time. Each generation has its own mission to fulfil or betray.
On Friday 29 November, I had the honour of presenting this year’s Alfred Fagon Award at the Tricycle Theatre. It was there in 1996 that a number of Alfred’s friends and family met and decided to establish an award to celebrate his life, acknowledge his contribution to theatre as a playwright and actor, honour his memory and keep his spirit alive by supporting the work of playwrights from the African Diaspora in the UK. A £5,000 prize is awarded to the writer who has, in the opinion of the judges, written the best stage play of the year. New as well as established writers are encouraged to enter.
The 2013 Alfred Fagon Award, the 17th, went to young playwright Diana Nneka Atuona for her first play, Liberian Girl, a play in which she explores the impact upon communities of Liberia’s devastating 14 year civil war.
On 29 August 1986, Alfred Fagon collapsed and died from a heart attack while jogging near his home in Lambeth, South London. The police established that a heart attack caused his death and that he lived in an apartment in the building near where he was found. They claimed that they could find nothing to identify him or find any information about family or friends and therefore arranged for him to be buried as unknown in a pauper’s grave. It was some two weeks later that his agent, Harriet Cruickshank, was alerted that something was wrong when the BBC notified her that Alfred had failed to turn up to a meeting. Among his belongings in that same apartment were his passport, letters from Harriet herself and from the Arts Council.
Alfred’s debut as a professional actor was in Mustapha Matura’s Black Pieces at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 1970. This prompted him to write 11 Josephine House which was staged in 1972 at the Almost Free Theatre in London by director, Ronald Rees. Ronald Rees also directed Mustapha Matura’s As Time Goes By in 1971 at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh Festival, Royal Court and the ICA with a cast that included Alfred Fagon, Stefan Kalipha, Mona Hammond, Oscar James, Robert Coleby, Corinne Skinner-Carter, Carole Hayman, T Bone Wilson and Tommy Eytle.
By the time of his death, Alfred had written and produced a number of other plays, including No Soldiers in St. Paul’s; In Shakespeare Country produced by the BBC in 1973, a play about the struggle to define and project black personality in a country dominated by Shakespeare; the Death of a Blackman’ (1975); Four Hundred Pounds (1983) and Lonely Cowboy (1985).
Alfred Fagon was born on 25 June 1937 in Clarendon, Jamaica and came to Britain at 18, one of that band of migrant workers that arrived from different parts of the Caribbean to help rebuild Britain after the Second World War. He worked for British Rail in Nottingham and in 1958 he joined the Royal Signal Corps of the British Army, becoming their middleweight boxing champion in 1962.
1958 was the year that the first post-War riots erupted in St Ann’s, Nottingham and in Notting Hill, London. In August 1958, the growing Caribbean community of migrant workers experienced what Caribbean servicemen and women, demobbed from the Second War World had been experiencing since the 1940s. They were the target of racial hostility, men especially, typically in the form of physical and verbal abuse, for daring to dance with, let alone court or marry whites. They were targeted, too, because white folk resented them coming and taking ‘their jobs’.
On leaving the Army, Alfred travelled around Britain singing calypso and immersing himself in the life of communities such as the one he had left in Nottingham. He settled in the St Paul’s district of Bristol where in April 1963, the Caribbean community, supported by Asians and whites, started the ‘Bristol Bus Boycott’ in protest at the refusal of the Bristol Omnibus Company to employ African or Asian bus crews. The boycott was to last a full four months before the company finally gave in and abandoned its ‘colour bar’.
Paul Stephenson, a youth worker and community activist in Bristol, was chosen by the West Indian Development Council to be the spokesperson for the boycott. Stephenson was later to become one of the Trustees of the Alfred Fagon Award.
Alfred Fagon, then, who had experienced Britain in colonial Jamaica up to the age of 18, was having a life experience inside post-War Britain that was about struggle and strife. Struggle against racism and for human rights, especially the right to work and to give expression to your humanity; struggle to defend the right to walk the streets and go about your lawful business without the threat of being killed or maimed on account of the colour of your skin; struggle to humanise the society no less. Strife on account of defence against personal, structural and institutional forms of racism; strife in the form of physical resistance on the streets, as well as political and cultural resistance.
Alfred would have been familiar with the journeys of others such as Cy Grant. Grant was also ex-Armed Forces (RAF); he had also used calypso as an art form to convey messages to Britain and to keep Caribbean communities connected with what was after all an integral part of them; he had become an actor in the early 1960s at a time when black roles were still played by white actors with blackened faces and black actors were confined to stereotypical roles. In 1965, Cy played the lead role in Othello at the Phoenix Theatre in Leicester to wide acclaim. He successfully auditioned for Laurence Olivier and his Festival of Britain Company and had stage appearances in London and New York.
Alfred Fagon’s first stage appearance was at Bristol Arts Centre in Henry Living’s play, The Little Mrs Foster Show. In acknowledgement of his contribution to theatre in Bristol and in Britain as both playwright and actor, as well as his residency in the city since the 1960s, the Friends of Fagon Committee and Bristol City Council erected a bronze statue in Alfred’s honour on 29 August 1987, the first anniversary of his death. Standing in the Grosvenor Road Triangle, Ashley Road, St Pauls, Bristol, it is the only statue of an African from the Caribbean Diaspora in Bristol.
To mark the 10th anniversary of Alfred’s death, a group of people came together, determined that despite the wholly undeserved and unremarkable way in which Alfred Fagon’s body had been buried, they would organise a memorial to salute his spirit and build a lasting theatrical monument to his memory.
Among them were playwrights, actors and directors who themselves had played some part in inspiring and supporting Alfred’s development as a playwright, actor and poet and had continued to provide opportunities for new, rising and established playwrights and actors of the Diaspora. They therefore undertook to use what they had built and the experience they had gained in the process to establish the Alfred Fagon Award and propel the scriptwriting and acting careers of emerging African Diaspora artists who might otherwise be denied opportunities to have their work seen assessed and produced.
They included Yvonne Brewster OBE, Mustapha Matura, Roland Rees, Paul Stephenson OBE, Oscar James, Winsome Pinnock, Sheelagh Killeen, and Graham Whybrow. Yvonne, Roland, Winsome and Graham had been encouraging, guiding and supporting eclipsed talent, each in their own way, for upwards of 25 years or more by the time they joined forces to build the Alfred Fagon ‘monument’.
The Award is generously supported by the Peggy Ramsay Foundation which has provided the prize each year since the first award was given to Ray Williams in 1996 for his play Starstruck.
Talawa Theatre Company under Yvonne Brewster’s direction incubated the Award and nurtured and administered it for many years. Graham Whybrow at the Royal Court provided support to the Award subsequently as did the Cottesloe. For me, it was especially poignant to be giving the award on the same stage where Alfred’s memorial was held and the Award founded.
Previous winners of the Alfred Fagon Award and recipients of Special Commendations include: Roy Williams, Shenagh Cameron, Sheila White, Grant Buchanan-Marshall, Adeshegun Ikoli, Linda Brogan, Penny Marshall, Trevor Williams, Marcia Layne, Michael Abbensetts, Michael Bhim, Allia V Oswald, Lorna French, Paula B Stanic, Oladipo Agboluaje, Rachel De La Haye, Levi David Addai and Ros Martin.
There were six runners-up for the Award this year: Olapido Agboluaje for Fractures; Denton Chikura for The Epic Adventure of Nhamo the Manyinka Warrior and his Sexy Wife Chipo, which was on at the Tricycle from 1 – 24 August 2013; Martin Edwards for The Glory Road; Danny James for Bounty, Chino Odimba for The Long Poem and Juliet Gilkes Romero for Razing Cane. As I said in presenting the Award on Friday, all are ‘winners’, but the one and only prize went to Diana Atuona for Liberian Girl. We hope we would soon see the shortlisted plays staged in theatres across the UK and wider afield.
This year, assessors received 55 entries and whittling that down to a final shortlist of 7 was no easy task. If anyone doubts the need for an Award such as this, they should consider for a moment how long it took for British theatre to accept and produce plays written by people from the African Diaspora living if not born in Britain.
It is 57 years since Edric Connor established the Edric Connor Agency, which Pearl Connor later ran as the Afro-Asian-Caribbean Agency until 1976. Pearl launched the Negro Theatre Workshop at the Lyric Theatre in London in 1961 and over four decades she took on the British theatre establishment as well as church and state in defence of the right to access, opportunity and respect for their professionalism and creative products of African-Asian-Caribbean playwrights, actors, writers, poets and musicians and those from the African continent similarly.
Actors and playwrights who are now household names, not least because of their appearances in TV drama, gratefully acknowledge that they owe their career opportunities and their theatrical success to Pearl Connor. It is right and fitting, therefore, that some of those same people work tirelessly to make the Alfred Fagon Award a meaningful platform and launch pad for writers and actors whose work might never see the light of day otherwise.
The Award event is an important showcase for the growing number of theatrical agents, directors and producers who are waking up to the fact that the talent pool which the Award showcases each year is not just a multi-ethnic/multicultural addition to what is considered ‘mainstream’. Indeed, it is redefining ‘the mainstream’ and educating new generations of theatre goers, in the same way that the African and Asian Diaspora is reconfiguring the demography of Britain and its cultural landscape. That Diaspora will continue to draw upon universal themes, life events and cultural and political developments in what is still or once was called ‘home’ and narratives and imaginings that spring from our interface as a Diaspora with British society, a society that can no longer define itself without seeing us as integral to itself and to its future.
There can therefore never be enough playwrights and actors from the Global African Diaspora. They can only be ‘enough’ if the industry continues to confine them to particular roles and opportunities to the extent that they continue to fall over one another and to have to wait for the next wave of acceptance of their work because they and the work they create are considered to have ‘had their turn for now’.
These are issues Pearl Connor grappled with in the 1960s and later. They are also ones to which I returned in the work I did when I led a consultation a few years ago for Arts Council England on Identity, Aesthetics and Ethnicity and produced with Dr Samina Zahir of Hybrid an epistolary paper titled Speaking Truth to Power – critical debate on Identity, Aesthetics and Ethnicity; a diversity of voices in theatre and the Arts in England.
I trust that as in previous years the Award will open doors for Diana Atuona and Liberian Girl, as well as for the other finalists this year. I extend my thanks to the Alfred Fagon award Trustees and Advisors and to the 2013 Readers and Assessors, ably chaired by Anton Phillips.