It’s strange how, sometimes, art mirrors life. For the last few days the news has been full of the aftermath of Sunday’s football result or, rather, the reaction to it by some sections of the nation trading in using a handful of missed penalties as an excuse for racist abuse. And the play that I chose to review yesterday, quite by chance as it happens, deals with the same theme of intolerance and the negation of achievement based on the colour of someone’s skin. This was an audio play called Recognition which came from the first series of 45 North’s Written On The Waves project (I’m still playing catch up, even as Season 2 gathers pace) and concerns a black composer whose existence I was aware of but knew nothing of his life or work.
This was Samuel Coleridge-Taylor – not to be confused with the similarly designated poet, though he was apparently named after him – born in the latter half of the nineteenth century and who achieved some fame in his lifetime but has been more or less ignored since despite being championed by the likes of Edward Elgar and Hubert Parry. He studied at the Royal College of Music, wrote numerous well regarded musical compositions, became involved in the struggle for racial equality, toured America three times and died at the age of 37 of a chest infection thought to have been brought on by stress. His achievements were remarkable not only because of the prejudice he faced for his mixed race status and the fact that he married a white British woman in the face of her family’s fierce opposition but also because he was illegitimate, an equally frowned upon condition for the Victorians.
Recognition, co-created by Amanda Wilkin and Rachael Nanyonjo and written by the former takes these biographical details and weaves a fascinating and instructive narrative about the composer’s life presented as first person testimony in monologue form. We hear how the student Samuel was subject to disconcerting questions about his origins – when asked where he hails from he longs to reply “Croydon” and how he had to consciously fight to get his work noticed. Weaving through this is a second monologue about modern day music student Song who discovers Coleridge-Taylor’s story and sees it in many echoes of her own struggle with self-esteem and achievement. Song recognises that her life could all too easily turn out like his but takes heart from his determination to succeed on his own terms. If only the world at large would see it in the same way. Thus, the production cleverly draws parallels between the past and the present and shows how little has fundamentally changed in the last 100 years or so.
Just the two voices are used to drive the narrative forward with some stirring music to bridge the time changes back and forward. Both Obioma Ugoala as Samuel and Shiloh Coke as Song deliver considered empathetic characterisations with appropriate intensity and very clear diction. Musically there is enough to make investigating further into Coleridge-Taylor’s repertoire an interesting prospect and among the individual players the gorgeous violin playing of Fra Rustumji stands out. There is also some excellent gospel singing – one of the many influences on the composer’s work – and extracts from his trio of compositions based on the poem Hiawatha.
Such was the regard with which he held this piece, that Coleridge-Taylor named his son after it and it was instructive to learn that at one time it was the most performed oratorio after The Messiah and Elijah. It seems absurd with that level of popularity that he should fall into obscurity quite so quickly but that would seem to be what happened and the man dubbed “the black Mahler” was soon disregarded. This play helps to right that narrative and suggests in a very timely fashion that race really has no need to enter consideration when artistic and, yes, sporting endeavour is concerned. Intrinsically Coleridge-Taylor went from playing in the musical Premier League but after his death was swiftly relegated to the fourth division. I suppose it’s just as well that there’s no musical equivalent of the penalty!
Poster image by Dorcas Madbadelo
Recognition is available as part of 45 North’s Written On The Waves project – click here
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