“A fitting tribute”
Amanda Wilkin and Rachel Nanyonjo stage a beautiful tribute to Croydon local and internationally acclaimed musician, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor
There are two narratives that run side by side in Amanda Wilkin’s new play. The first is about 19th-century British composer and conductor Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (played by Paul Adeyefa), and how he came to be a composer and conductor of international acclaim. It tells the story of his life, from the playgrounds of his early years, where a fascination with his afro caused the other children to set fire to it so they could see if and how it would burn, to being conned out of the rights to his most successful musical creation, right up to his premature death at the age of 37 following a sudden collapse at West Croydon train station.
The second narrative centres on a Black woman, Song (Kibong Tanji), who, in the present day, is studying for a degree in musical composition. Her frustration with a curriculum that forces her to study only the work of white men leads her to Coleridge-Taylor and the discovery ignites a passion in her. Just as he was, she is struggling to fit in with the rigid traditions of the classical-music world. And like him, she is told she must grow a thick skin if she hopes to achieve success. Their two stories interweave to create a bleak picture of a century of stagnation in both attitudes and in progress.
The play marks Wilkin’s authorial return to the UK stage following the success of her 2020 Verity Bargate award-winning work Shedding a Skin. This piece is more thematically busy and perhaps lacks the sense of assurance of her previous work. Some of the storytelling occasionally feels compromised by enthusiastic attempts to tackle hefty subject matter in a short space of time. It is at its most elegant when the characters are trusted with, and in command of, the story.
Director Rachael Nanyonjo – who was notably movement director on Arinzé Kene’s critically acclaimed Misty – combines text, music, choreography and dance in her production. The staging is supported by Jasmine Swan’s modular set design of mirrored blocks, which are moved around the space to create desks, sofas and a conductor’s plinth.
Recognition originally premiered as an audio play in February 2021, and there’s something very beautiful about its return being staged at this Croydon venue; the home of Talawa, it stands almost exactly a mile from where Coleridge-Taylor lived on St Leonard’s Road. This version features a band of musicians – including a string quartet – who play his compositions throughout. It’s a fitting tribute for a true local legend.
Fairfield Halls, London
In Talawa theatre company’s show, the story of a modern Black composer is entwined with that of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor
There is a potent moment in Recognition when a student at a prestigious British music college confronts her tutor about the lack of Black British composers on the syllabus. Why is the canon so white, she asks, and throws out names of some who might feature. Among them is Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a Victorian of dual heritage who lived in Croydon and earned global celebrity as the “African Mahler”.
Co-created by writer Amanda Wilkin and director Rachael Nanyonjo, this story of what happened to Coleridge-Taylor (Paul Adeyefa) is narrated by the student, Song (Kibong Tanji), and enacted in parallel scenes. Structurally, it is reminiscent of Jasmine Lee Jones’s Curious: we see how the story of a past, lone, burning talent affects and inspires a present-day character.
Strong performances … Kibong Tanji in Recognition. Photograph: Gifty Dzenyo
Talawa’s production is led by Coleridge-Taylor’s compositions alongside music by the Mercury prize-nominated Cassie Kinoshi. The band play at the back of the stage, with piano, cello, bass, drums and violins creating the drama’s soaring moments.
The script packs in everything from Coleridge-Taylor’s childhood bullying to his economic hardship and his US tours, and covers Song’s experiences of racial prejudice and her response to the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020. While the scenes are short, the pace still lags at times. Characters exchange information or describe themselves and talk through the play’s themes, which leaves us emotionally outside the drama. But the script comes to life with some witty and intimate moments and Song’s story gains emotional depth in the second act when her life and Coleridge-Taylor’s become better entwined.
Nanyonjo’s direction has elegance but some of her choreography is hackneyed such as the raising of chairs in slow motion. Jasmine Swan’s fluid set of tables and chairs is niftily rearranged but a back screen of abstract lights resembles the visuals of a cheesy meditation video.
The central performances are strong and Song’s parents (played by Deborah Tracey and David Monteith) are a surprising highlight, however minor their parts. The playtext speaks of Coleridge-Taylor’s fame as equal to that of John Lennon or Paul McCartney and he was clearly considered one of the most important musicians of his time. So why isn’t he better known and celebrated now?