There are shows that you prepare to review, genuinely not knowing what to expect. Then you appear at the venue, and you see Joseph Marcell, the Shakespearian actor and his wife. He of course is better known for his role as Geoffrey in the Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
A few seats away, from Marcell sits the Opera and theatre director, Joseph Charles of Thee Black Swan Opera and Theatre Company, with his wife. A few West End performers whose resumés include The Lion King, Rent and Fame. The noted historian, Dr Morgan Dalphinis, is also in the house. Reima Baker, head of ‘Break a Leg’ Management sits with a note pad not too far away, no doubt looking for the next “talent” to sign to her London agency.
Theatre Royalty does not just happen to pass through Midkent College on a Saturday night. Ignore that point and you miss the drawing power and respect for writer director JD Douglas, and his immense standing in the profession.
The show opens with a selection of 11 characters, whose lives and achievements are narrated by the dark and rich voice of Errol Hines. The show opens with the man himself, the author/director in the role of Samuel Coleridge Taylor, conductor baton in hand.
Coleridge Taylor was not born in Kent. Through skillful and forensic research Douglas, was able to show his connection to the county. His mother Alice Hare Martin was born in Dover. As a young boy the young Taylor visited his mother’s family in Kent where he took music lessons to help master the violin. In the background of the commentary the audience hear his Petite Suite de Concert, a composition played as part of the coronation festivities of King George V.
For the next fifteen minutes the attractively costumed characters come alive on stage, played by a list of actors. Triona Blair– Josephine Brown the first Black Headmistress of Kent. Ethan Jn Marie – Donald Adolphus Brown, who saved the lives of workers at the Woolwich Arsenal Ordnance Deport for which he received the Edward Award by King George 1V. Chad Davis- Ignatius Sancho, the first Black man to vote in England, the year was 1773. Dalton Palmer – Bishop Samuel Ajai Crowther the first ordained Black bishop in England. De ja Grant, the young Sarah Forbes Bonetta. Natalie Grant played the older version with aplomb. Darien Charles-footballer and First War Hero Walter Tull. And at the end of the scene Aliyah Simpson came on as the accomplished, Dame Heather Rabbats.
A magical array of Black Heroes and Sheroes, from many walks of life.
Olaudah Equiano’s achievement on board the famous Namur was explored through a monologue by the writer. With no one to play the role, Douglas started learning the part two days, before the show on the urging of his friend Joseph Marcell.
Next came the role that Kent played in the abolition of the Slavery. Douglas reminded the audience that in 1788, Local MP, William Pitt the younger agreed to help William Wilberforce, in his fight against slavery. The agreement was made under the famous Kenson Oak Tree. Renamed the Wilberforce Oak years later.
Mrs. Wilberforce was played by local Councillor Pat Cooper, who read the entry from her husband’s diary. Bringing hidden history to the fore is part of Douglas’ bag of tricks. He is uniquely gifted in his knowledge of world events and facts.
Years later four African bishops visited the scene to commemorate the event. In Black Heroes of Kent, the actors pose on stage. Then flash, bang we see the actual picture, taken more than a century ago. Living History at its most inventiveness.
During the 18th and 19th century many Speakers, Church Ministers and Performers travelled through Kent. Those Black performers carried the message and conditions of life back in America. Ida B Wells was one such outstanding woman. Many had not heard of her. In the production Aliyah Simpson gave a professional portrayal way beyond her age. Her performance with a Southern accent was perfectly studied and delicately executed. Her anti lynching poem was, one of the many highlights and star performance on the night.
Shyo Allen led the on-stage ‘Fish Jubilee Singer’ Choir and brought much needed vocal and musical gravitas, to the proceedings.
Chatham born Chartist William Cuffay is one hero whose contribution is celebrated today in the Parliaments of Britain and Australia. He fought for the vote for the masses. In real life he was tried and deported to Australia. Douglas recreated the trial with Merric Boyd, son of the celebrated Australian painter Jamie Boyd as the judge. Darien Charles played William Cuffay.
The two actors created the atmosphere of a court scene drama with conviction and brilliant acting.
It should be mentioned that they were part of the London contingency of the show, who travelled weekly to Kent for rehearsals.
Before summing up, I checked comments made on Facebook. Janet Hemmings one of the original cast of Black Heroes in the Hall of Fame wrote: Fantastic, knowledgeable and entertaining.
Andrew Scott a Secondary School teacher wrote; An absolute first class production highly recommended.
Joseph Marcell tweeted; An excellent addition to Black History Month.
The St. Lucia High Commissioner, His Excellency Mr. Guy Mayers, spoke at the end saying, St. Lucia was proud of JD Douglas, he is a man of exceptional gifts.
I cannot praise the cast and the director, writer enough. This was an evening of pure joy and edutainment. The likes of which we will wait a very long time to see in Kent. In the meantime, let us celebrate the immense talent that is JD Douglas. Truly A Man for all Seasons.