Wednesday, January 19

Alfred Fagon: a brilliant playwright whose work should not be forgotten | Theater

TOlfred Fagon was many things before he became a playwright at the forefront of the black British theater movement of the 1970s and 1980s: welder, champion boxer, railroad man, military man, poet and actor, with a colorful circle of friends including the model Christine Keeler. . “He did not set limits and did not want to follow any pattern,” says his friend Yvonne Brewster, the actor and director who, after his death, co-founded the Alfred Fagon Awards recognize the talents of British black writers.

Born in Jamaica to an expanding family of 10 siblings, he dropped out of school to work with his father in the family’s orange plantation at age 13 and emigrated to Britain in 1955 at the age of 18.

He worked for British Rail in Nottingham before joining the army for a time and becoming a middleweight boxing champion in the Royal Corps of Signals. He then settled in Bristol, where he began acting as a television extra and later took on professional roles on stage and screen.

Brewster met him in the 1970s, when he was hanging out at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, and where he had acted in Black Pieces, by Trinidadian playwright Mustapha Matura. Fagon quickly became a regular at Brewster’s Soho flat, where he would show up for coffee and long talks.

Yvonne brewster
‘He didn’t put limits on himself’ … Yvonne Brewster on Fagon

She remembers him as a good-natured man, “a Rastafarian with only one Rasta”, who had a natural knack for writing. “He used to open the lock on the building. We were on the sixth floor, so he came over and called. He would sit down and say to me, ‘So you already know something about playwriting.’

He told Brewster that he found the art of playwriting easy: “He said it felt like writing what people were saying and putting a twist on it. I told him I know people, Derek Walcott, Wole Soyinka, who wouldn’t say it’s easy! “

In 1972, Brewster attended the opening of Fagon’s debut play, 11 Josephine House, set in an apartment block in Bristol, when it was performed at the Almost Free theater in Soho. He sold out most nights and came back several times: “I learned a lot from him,” he says. His other plays include Shakespeare Country, broadcast on BBC Two, Four Hundred Pounds, performed at the Royal Court, and Lonely Cowboy at the Tricycle Theater (now Kiln).

The Death of a Black Man, featuring the interaction of three characters in a posh King’s Road apartment, opened at the Hampstead Theater in 1975. This month, Dawn Walton will direct a revival at the same theater with actors Nickcolia King-N. ‘da, Natalie Simpson and Toyin Omari-Kinch.

It is an ambitious work whose themes span class, race, gender politics, Marxism, capitalism, and the pan-African movement, as well as discussions of belonging and assimilation. “We are having the same conversations about how we live in this country as black people, what is our relationship to money and power as people of Caribbean descent, and how do we achieve these things, through evolution or revolution,” says Walton. .

The revival was originally planned for last year, but has gained in power and foreknowledge, Walton believes, particularly in light of the Black Lives Matter movement. The play explores black British identity in an intersectional way, he says, negotiating the issue of class through its three central figures from across the social spectrum. “The flat is owned by a successful 18-year-old businessman who is black, which must have been a stunning image in 1975. He mistakes the stereotype in that opening scene and grows from there.”

Dawn Walton
‘It was extraordinary’ … Dawn Walton, who is directing a rerun of Fagon’s Death of a Black Man at the Hampstead Theater. Photograph: Christopher Thomond / The Guardian

In 1986, Fagon died at the age of 49 outside his own home, but police did not identify him, Brewster says. “We realized that he was missing and we said, ‘Where is Alfred?’ [The director] Roland Rees and his agent, Harriet Cruickshank, made inquiries and discovered that he had had a heart attack. The police had just stopped him and got rid of him. There is no grave for Alfred Fagon. They put it in the grave of a poor man. It had a BBC script and the police could have done the investigation, but they didn’t. He sent shockwaves through the [acting] community.”

Fagon’s friends organized a commemorative event on the Tricycle and Brewster found himself handing out a hat for a collection. “I don’t know what he was thinking, but we got £ 2,000 just by distributing it.” Originally, the money was intended to be awarded to a young black playwright to “buy time to write,” but ultimately led to the creation of the Alfred Fagon Prize, co-founded by Brewster, Rees, and Oscar James.

The awards have an illustrious track record of winners such as Michaela Coel, Theresa Ikoko, and Roy Williams. Juliet Gilkes Romero was last year’s winner for The Whip, performed with great success at the RSC. Gilkes Romero, who writes a drama about the Black Lives Matter movement and criminal justice for the Synergy Theater Project, believes that Fagon was seeking a new kind of artistic freedom to reflect the time in which he lived, “but above all to be heard and taken seriously as a talented black British writer ”.

Prescient ... The Death of a Black Man, starring Nickcolia King-N'da, Natalie Simpson, and Toyin Omari-Kinch.
Prescient … The Death of a Black Man, starring Nickcolia King-N’da, Natalie Simpson, and Toyin Omari-Kinch. Photography: Shaun Webb

What worries him is that his work is not better known, even if his name is immortalized by the award. “I would like to see more black writers on stage and new writing on stage, but I would also like to see revivals of the 70s and 80s. I have never seen the work of Alfred Fagon before and yet I have won his award.”

Walton is also frustrated with how little is remembered of his life: “When you Google Alfred Fagon, apart from the award, the only thing you read about him is the circumstances of his death. I find that really annoying. He was an extraordinary man with an impressive body of work and there is room for renovations to his other works. I’ve long had a crush on Lonely Cowboy, which is about gentrification in Brixton. But, like many black artists, he suffers to have his work put on him once and never be seen again ”.

She was dismayed to find that almost everyone she spoke to in her investigation for The Death of a Black Man had not seen her work, even if they had heard of it. That’s why this revival is so important, she says. “We are beginning to lose his contemporaries and with them a great deal of black British achievement is lost if the work is not revived.”

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