Alfred Fagon Selected Plays and The Death of a Black Man
As Dawn Walton explains in the introduction which bookends Alfred Fagon Selected Plays, opposite a contribution from one of the winners, Juliet Gilkes Romero, but for the award in his name, Alfred Fagon might barely have been remembered today.
That would be a shame, since the British playwright immigrant from Jamaica was ahead of his time.
Today, he would be fêted as a man who attempted to depict the British Caribbean community from the inside, frequently expertly replicating the sometimes slangy language on the page.
The collection comprises seven relatively short plays that demonstrate the skills and limitations of a writer whose career was sadly cut short in his prime when Fagon succumbed to a heart attack when not yet 50.
He must have been a colourful character, as an army signaller who won a Middleweight Boxing Crown but also worked inter alia cultivating oranges, welding and on trains before becoming an actor and playwright.
A Day in the Bristol Air Raid Shelter
This conversation between an unnamed black male poet and white female sculptor is stronger on issues than content or narrative drive.
They give the impression of being high, while discussing politics, race, arts and, eventually, love.
Adventure Inside Thirteen
The second play in the collection is much stronger, featuring powerful debates regarding what feels like the prelude to a riot.
A group of do-gooders, both black and white, are attempting to populate and popularise the eponymous adventure playground, trying to keep multiracial youth off the streets.
However, the potentially threatening police presence along with difficulties in an associated hostel add to other difficulties that include a threatened intervention by the National Front, a stabbing and failures to communicate between races and across generations.
Four Hundred Pounds
This brief conversation piece features two London-based friends who have been close since their youth in Jamaica.
The catalyst for what could be an irreparable breach comes when the duo, who have become successful pool hustlers, lose the titular £400 when one of them finds Jesus at an inopportune moment.
What follows is a conversation largely centred on the divergence between lives motivated by philosophy and money.
No Soldiers in St Paul’s
Alfred Fagon clearly feels at home amongst an underclass who are rarely depicted on stage.
This play features members of the Caribbean community in Bristol’s St Paul’s area.
The archetypal man is unemployed, gambles, smokes ganja and beats up his “woman” on a regular basis. In return, their much put-upon ladies provide funds and skivvy but inexplicably won’t leave.
As one character so eloquently expresses her plight, “we women can't win. If you live with a black man he beats you up. If you talk to a white man you're a prostitute or a informer.”
The main threats come both from the predatory police and the slovenly attitudes of these characters, who might generally be persecuted or merely suffering from a persecution complex.
This slight piece was written for a BBC TV production. It feels like a rerun of No Soldiers in St Pauls on a smaller scale as an actor with a bad attitude and a perpetual grudge reacts badly to another failed audition.
When not whingeing, he is happy to sponge off and beat up his partner, showing signs of incipient madness—to an extent driven there by racial prejudice.
Ironically, given its title, Small World is a fully fledged play, although it feels incomplete, having created some fascinating characters and situations, which might have been developed into something considerably longer.
It focuses on the Job-like John, who runs a youth advice centre in the Kilburn district of north-west London.
Despite interminable problems, including his long-suffering partner’s loss of faith, funding issues and a desire to take on the burden of so many troubled young people, a man who could be overwhelmed by all these difficulties is determined to carry on.
However, by the end of what is by far the best play in the collection, he finds new hope following a change of direction.
The final play in the collection also shares much with its predecessors. Again, there is a lazy man, addicted to drink and drugs and a frustrated woman trying to make him turn over and new leaf.
The big issue is whether they will ever be able to leave what she describes as “a ghetto” and start a new life. It would spoil the surprise to reveal the answer.
The Death of a Black Man
In order to put Alfred Fagon Selected Plays into context, one really needs to have seen or at least read his most popular work, The Death of a Black Man, published separately at the time of the recent Hampstead Theatre revival.
This play, set in 1973 and first performed at Hampstead a couple of years later, demonstrates that the playwright is more effective when he has a chance to develop his ideas into longer pieces.
There is a commonality of subject matter and characterisation with the earlier works, as two arrogant young men bully a cradle-snatching older woman, the mother of one of their children.
Once again, the London-based characters in this three-hander have a Jamaican background. At the start, Shakie is an 18-year-old entrepreneur, selling quasi-African furniture to rich whites.
His friend Stumpie is attempting to launch himself as an African music impresario, while Jackie, the mother of Shakie’s infant daughter, seems unable to stay away from the young man.
When the two moneymaking ventures fail, the men decide to move into a shadier industry.
While protesting about Enoch Powell and institutional racism and attempting to make a killing at the Notting Hill Festival, this play veers dangerously close to anti-Semitism, even as it talks about the ravages of the slave trade.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher