As we prepare for our first private read-through of Young Othello, we take a look at some of the Black British writers, choreographers, directors and other creatives who work behind the scenes and have been instrumental in British theatre.
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‘THERE IS MUCH YOU HAVE FORGOTTEN.
THERE IS MUCH YOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND’
Amanda Ira Aldridge (1866-1956)
Amanda Ira Aldridge was born in London, the daughter of the renowned African-American actor Ira Aldridge, the first Black Shakespearean actor. Amanda earned a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in 1883 and experienced a successful career as a contralto until laryngitis left her with damage to her throat.
Amanda then turned to composing music under the name Montague Ring and worked as a vocal coach. Her students included African-American singers Roland Hayes, Marion Anderson and Paul Robeson. Robeson famously went on to reprise her father’s role of Othello in the West End in 1930 and later as the first Black man to play the role on Broadway.
Samuel Coleridge Taylor (1875-1912)
Nicknamed the ‘African Mahler’, Samuel Coleridge Taylor was born in Holborn, London to Dr Daniel Peter Hughes, a doctor from Sierra Leone and Alice Hare Martin, an English woman.
Raised in Croydon, Coleridge Taylor’s passion for music was nurtured by several people including his step-father George Evans, Colonel Herbert A. Walters, the choirmaster at St George’s Church in Croydon and Joseph Beckwith who gave him violin lessons.
In 1890 Coleridge Taylor received a scholarship to study violin at the Royal College of Music and graduated studying composition. By the late 1800’s Coleridge Taylor had developed a reputation of being a great composer and his cantata ‘Hiawatha's Wedding Feast’ (1899) became a hit in England and made him a global success.
Coleridge Taylor was aware that his colour caused others to perceive him as being different and he experienced racial insults at school and received the nickname ‘coaley’. It may have been these earlier experiences that contributed to his involvement in the Pan-African movement that was developing in the US and England. With his music he aimed to celebrate and preserve the history of Africans across the diaspora. His pieces include ‘African Romances’, seven songs with piano accompaniment to words by the African-American poet Paul Dunbar and ‘Symphonic Variations on an African Air’ for orchestra, ‘Toussaint l’Overture’ and the rhapsody ‘The Bamboula’.
On his travels to the US, Coleridge Taylor also became inspired by the work of W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington, the latter of which wrote a preface to Coleridge Taylor’s ‘Twenty-four Negro Melodies’, saying it was ‘a cause for special gratitude that the foremost musician of his race, a man in the zenith of his powers, should seek to chronicle, and thus perpetuate, the old melodies that are so rapidly passing away’.
In his later life, Coleridge Taylor was also commissioned to write music for the writer and dramatist Stephen Phillips for his plays ‘Herod’ (1900), ‘Faust’ (1908) and Ulysses (1902) as well as classic plays including Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’
Samuel Coleridge Taylor died at the age of 37 in 1912 from pneumonia.
CLR James (1901-1989)
CLR James was born in Trinidad in 1901(at the time a British colony) and trained as a teacher. He moved to England in 1932 and published ‘The Life of Captain Cipriani: an Account of British Government in the West Indies, with the pamphlet The Case for West-Indian Self Government’ in the same year.
As well as being a cricket correspondent for ‘The Guardian’ in Manchester, James also become involved in Marxist politics and West Indian independence movements. In 1938 he published the notable ‘The Black Jacobins’, a study on the San Domingo/Haitian Slave Revolt and the leader Toussaint L’ouverture.
On 15th March 1936, his play ‘Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History; A Play in Three Acts’ opened at the Westminster Theatre. The play starred Paul Robeson in the title role.
It was produced by the controversial theatre company The Stage Society who were infamous for staging plays about taboo subjects and was partly sponsored by The League of Coloured Peoples. It was the first production on an English stage to cast Black actors in a play by a Black playwright.
This play was important not only in highlighting the history of the San Domingo Revolt and other similar revolts but it also emphasised the political struggles of African people across the diaspora in the early 1900’s.
Una Marson (1905-1965)
Una Marson was born in Jamaica where she worked on the magazine ‘Jamaica Critic’ and then founded her own magazine ‘The Cosmopolitan’.
In 1932 she moved to London to further her experience in writing. During her time in England she was a lodger at the home of Dr Harold Moody at 164 Queens Road in Peckham. From here Moody ran the League of Coloured Peoples, an organisation established to improve race relations. Una worked for the League as an unpaid assistant secretary, as well as organising student activities, meetings and concerts. She worked alongside other intellectuals including CLR James, George Padmore and Jomo Kenyatta.
In 1933 Una’ s play ‘At What Price’ was produced by the League of Coloured Peoples and performed at the YMCA hostel on Great Russell Street. The play followed a young Jamaican girl who moves from the rural areas to work in Kingston as a stenographer and falls in love with her white boss. Due to popular demand the play was also staged at Scala and is notable for being the first colonial production in the West End.
In 1937 Una staged her second play ‘London Calling’ and her most striking play ‘Pocomania’ in 1938. This play centred on Jamaican indigenous religious practices and included elements of Jamaican vernacular, dance and song - something that had not been done on stage in that way before.
Una’s other work includes several collections of poetry such as ‘Moth and Star’ and ‘Toward the Star’ (1937). In 1933 her poem ‘N****r’ spoke of the racial abuse that was openly directed at ethnic minorities.
In 1939 Una began to work with the BBC on the magazine programme ‘Picture Page’ and in 1941 on ‘Calling the West indies’, a BBC Empire Service programme. Una became the pragramme’s West indies producer by 1942, making her the first Black woman programme maker at the BBC.
After being invited by George Orwell to contribute to his six-part poetry radio programme ‘Voice’ in 1942, Una was inspired to produce a similar programme called ‘Caribbean Voices’ where Caribbean literary work was broadcast. Authors included Derek Walcott and George Lamming, Writer Edward Kamu Braithwaite described ‘Caribbean Voices’ as being ‘the single most important literary catalyst for Caribbean creative writing in English.'
Errol John (1924-1988)
Errol John was born in Trinidad and after leaving school became an artist and journalist. Errol soon began acting and with Errol G. Hill, co-founded the Whitehall Players and became its lead actor.
In 1950 Errol moved to England as guest of the British Council. and performed as Haemon in ‘Antigone’ (1951) and the title role in Derek Walcott’s ‘Henri Christophe’ (1952).
Errol toured England with the American Negro Theatre’s production of ‘Anna Lucasta’ and also appeared in ‘Cry, the Beloved Country’ at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London. Shortly after, Errol’s career took off with roles including Othello at the Old Vic in 1962 and appearances in the ‘Merchant of Venice’, ‘Salome’ and ‘Measure for Measure’.
Errol had roles on BBC television programmes such as ‘Man from the Sun’ (1956), ‘No Hiding Place’ (1961) and ‘Rainbow City’ (1967) - a five-part series written for him. He also starred in films including ‘The African Queen (1951), ‘The Nun’s Story’ (1959) and ‘Guns at Batasi’ (1964).
Errol also wrote television programmes including The ‘Emperor Jones (1953) and ‘In the Dawn’ (1963).
Errol is possibly most famous for his play ‘Moon on a Rainbow Shawl’ which won the 1957 Observer playwriting contest. The play was first staged at the Royal Court in 1958. It was later revived at Stratford East in 1985, Almeida Theatre in 1988, directed by Maya Angelou, at the National Theatre in 2012 and at Talawa Theatre in 2014. The play has been performed in countries such as Argentina and Iceland and became a required text book in many schools in the Caribbean.
Errol Hill (1921-2003)
Born in Trinidad Errol Hill was the cofounder of the Whitehall Players with Errol John. He was awarded a British Council scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where he graduated with distinction in 1951 (the only Black student at the time). In his study of Black Shakespearean actors entitled ‘Shakespeare in Sable’ (1984), Hill recalls that the Rada principal, Sir Kenneth Barnes "could never get it straight that I came from the West Indies where I had spoken English all my life. He believed I was from darkest Africa and thought my cultivated English accent was a remarkable achievement."
During his time in Britain and noticing the lack of Black actors, he directed Caribbean students in several productions including Derek Walcott’s ‘Henri Christophe’ (1952), starring Errol John. In 1958 he received a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship to study at Yale University School of Drama, where he received an M.A. in playwriting in 1962 and a doctorate in 1966.
Hill was a great champion of plays that reflected the African experience in the Diaspora, particularly those that highlighted the vibrancy, language and themes of the Caribbean. In his play ‘Man Better Man (1964) is uses rhymed calypso verse.
During his life Hill produced and directed over 120 plays in the Caribbean, England, America and Nigeria. He taught at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire for 35 years where he became the John D Willard professor of drama and oratory in 1976 and emeritus professor in 1989.
Barry Reckord (1926-2011)
Barry Reckord, born Barrington John Reckord in Jamaica, he moved to England in 1953 after receiving an Issa Scholarship to study at the Cambridge University.
His first play ‘Della’ was introduced to audiences in Jamaica in 1954 and was then revised in London 1958 at the Royal Court as ‘Flesh to a Tiger’ The play was directed by Tony Richardson, choreographed by Boscoe Holder and featured a cast of some of preeminent Black-British actors of the time.
Reckord’s most successful piece, ‘Skyvers’ was first produced by the Royal Court in 1963. A few days before his death, the play was featured in a BBC Radio 3 production supported by the actor and writer Kwame Kwei-Armah, ‘who has warned of the dangers of rendering invisible the contributions of black dramatists to the mainstream of British theatre’.
The Barry Reckord Bursary was created in 2012 to support new playwrights of Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds.
Boscoe Holder was born in Trinidad and acknowledged his parents for nurturing his artistic abilities at a time when it was uncommon for children in Trinidad to be encouraged to so. Holder started painting at a very young age and was also an accomplished piano player, playing for wealthy people at events at the age of nine.
In his late teens Holder had formed his own dance company, which included his brother, the actor Geoffrey Holder. The company incorporated traditional African styles such as shango, bongo and bélé. As well as choreographing productions Holder also designed costumes for the performances.
In 1946 Holder travelled to Martinique where he was able to further his exploration of Black consciousness through his meetings with the Nardal sisters (Jeanne and Paulette)- who were instrumental in the Négritude movement. Their aim was to unite Black intellectuals in the current and former French colonies against French imperialism, celebrate African heritage and identity and promote African self-determination, self–reliance and self-respect. These experiences had a profound effect on Holder’s paintings, music and dance.
Holder moved to London in 1950 where his dance company Boscoe Holder and His Caribbean Dancers performed ‘Bal Creole’ on the BBC. The show featured his wife Sheila Clarke and introduced the steel drum to British audiences for the first time.
Holder travelled internationally, dancing and exhibiting his art, as well as choreographing Barry Reckord’s play ‘Flesh to a Tiger’, the 1953 BBC production of ‘The Emperor Jones’ (for which he also played the Congo witch doctor), producing, costuming and choreographing the floorshow in the Candlelight Room of the May Fair Hotel.
Holder also appeared in several films including ‘Sapphire’ (1959) and television series such as The Saint.
After 20 years based in London and a long and successful international career in performing and art, Holder returned to Trinidad in 1970 to continue working as a painter.
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