Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Bust of pioneering playwright listed to mark Black History Month

Bristol’s monument to a “brilliant” black British playwright of the 1970s and 1980s and the Essex gravestone of a man who escaped from slavery in New Orleans have been listed to mark Black History Month.

The new entries in the National Heritage List for England come alongside updates to existing listings to highlight aspects of black history that were not previously noted there. These include associations of buildings and monuments with the abolitionist Frederick Douglass and the black circus proprietor who inspired a Beatles song.

One of the two new listings is intended to celebrate and protect a bronze bust by Zimbabwean artist David Matusa of the actor, poet and playwright Alfred Fagon in St Paul’s, Bristol. Fagon was among the most notable black British playwrights of his era. It is thought that, at the time of his death, he was still the only black British playwright to have had work broadcast on national television.

Fagon was born in Clarendon, Jamaica, in 1937 and moved to England in 1955. He worked on the railways and served in the army before settling in St Paul’s in the 1960s and working as a welder. It was in Bristol that he started acting and writing.

His first professional appearance on the London stage was in Mustapha Matura’s play Black Pieces at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1970, as part of the first black theatre season in the UK. Plays written and produced by Fagon included 11 Josephine House ― portraying a group of Jamaicans in Bristol in the early 1970s and hailed in The Stage as “brilliantly entertaining”. The reviewer added that “the dialogue has a life and crackle to it which many playwrights would envy”. Fagon also wrote Shakespeare Country, a BBC2 production of his play of the same name. And he appeared in TV series including Z Cars and the BBC drama Fighting Back.

Fagon died of a heart attack while out jogging in Brixton in 1986, aged 49. Police said they were unable to identify him and he was given a pauper’s burial. The playwright was nevertheless honoured by friends in Bristol and the theatrical community once news of his death broke. The Friends of Fagon Committee commissioned the bust of Fagon, which was erected on the first anniversary of his death. It has now been grade II listed by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on the advice of Historic England.

“He has a particular resonance to the community of Bristol”

Deborah Mays, Historic England

In 1996, the Alfred Fagon Award was launched to recognise black British playwrights. In a tribute published on the website of London’s Hampstead Theatre to mark the return of Fagon’s play Death of a Black Man last year, dramatist Roy Williams, who has won the Alfred Fagon Award twice, wrote: “When Alfred arrived in England in the 50s, the country, whether it liked it or not, was going through great change ― arguably the biggest cultural change of its entire existence. Britain was still counting the cost of the second world war and it was losing its empire. Alfred and his generation of West Indians arriving in the UK, were made to feel unwelcome by the dominant white population.

“This was very much the world of Fagon’s plays. He captured the voices of Black Britain from those volatile times. Voices that were angry, confused, dissipated and isolated, but beyond that, just Black people struggling as well striving to understand what it means to live their lives in this country.  These are all issues and themes that of course have relevance today.”

Commenting on the listing of the bust, Deborah Mays, head of listing at Historic England, said: “He [Fagon] has a particular resonance to the community of Bristol, and particularly St. Paul’s, and the very fine portrait bust by David Matusa is located near to where he lived, so it’s very much in the heart of the community. We hope it will resonate with them in terms of the significance of his achievement in literary circles and the recognition that has ensued in the form of the bust. This is very important in Bristol, where recognition of individuals of all kinds needs to be put into context.”

In 2020, a statue of the merchant and slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol was toppled and defaced by Black Lives Matter protesters. Earlier this year, the bust of Alfred Fagon was vandalised with graffiti in what campaigners said was a racist attack. Previously, the Bristol gravestone of a former enslaved man, Scipio Africanus, was targeted in what was believed to have been a revenge attack for the Colston toppling.

The second new listing is of a gravestone in Essex belonging to Joseph Freeman, who escaped from slavery in New Orleans around 1861. The circumstances of his escape and arrival in England are unknown. However, by the time of the 1871 census, he was living in Baker Street, Chelmsford, with his wife Sarah and their daughter Sarah (born 1866) and five of Sarah’s seven children from her previous marriage to one Henry Farrow. The family home was close to the London Road Iron Works where Freeman worked. When he died in 1875, aged 45, he was buried in Chelmsford’s nonconformist cemetery in New London Road.

Joseph Freeman’s gravestone in Chelmsford. © Historic England Archive

The punning inscription commemorates: “JOSEPH / once a slave in New Orleans / who escaped to England and / became also a FREE MAN in Christ.”

The entry for the grade II listing states that the grave represents one of the few pieces of tangible evidence regarding the existence of formerly enslaved African American people in England.

Among the updates to three existing listings, the entry for the Baptist Church in North Shields now notes that the church welcomed the leading American abolitionist Frederick Douglass to speak on the system of slavery during his tour of England, Scotland and Wales in 1846.

The listing for 6 and 7 Christmas Steps in Bristol explains that No. 7 was the residence of Carlos Trower in the 1870s. Trower was known by his stage name “the African Blondin” and was a high rope artist of national repute. Like Joseph Freeman and Frederick Douglass, he had escaped from slavery in America.

The entry for the grave memorial of Susannah and William Darby at St George’s Fields, Leeds, has been amended to outline the couple’s extraordinary story. Norwich-born William was more widely known under his professional name of Pablo Fanque. He was one of the most successful circus impresarios in Victorian England and the first black circus owner in Britain. An advertisement for one of the many charitable performances that Fanque staged inspired John Lennon to write the 1967 Beatles song For the Benefit of Mr Kite

Susannah Darby died on 18 March 1848 when the gallery seating at her husband’s circus collapsed on her during a performance.

Lord Kamall, the heritage minister, said: “Black History Month is an important time to celebrate and reflect on the diversity of our heritage. These new listings will preserve important pieces of our history and make sure the stories behind the landmarks are told to new generations.”

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