Making History with Black Heroes – JD Douglas Sets the Record Straight

The Cast of Black Heroes with Producer JD Douglas at front

Black History Month is upon us. So many events, so much history. One event worth noting is a talk given by JD Douglas on the history of the stage production ‘Black Heroes’. The spectacular theatrical production broke all records and influenced so many theatrical performances to follow. JD Douglas, one of the Creators, was there from the beginning. In this piece he sets the record straight and shares the ‘behind the scenes’ story of how the idea became a history making phenomenon.

The stage production, Black Heroes in The Hall of Fame, was first staged at the Shaw Theatre, Euston Road in July 1987. From a small community project it became one of the most watched and influential Black theatrical presentations to this date. From the Shaw theatre it was transferred to the Hackney Empire, then the West End, followed by tours to Jamaica and America. The production showcased great personalities of African heritage in a two and a half hour spectacular pageantry of song, dance and speech and a play within a play called The Three Wise Men.

To date, there has been no written account on the origins of the show. Although started as a Camden Libraries and Arts initiative, the many voices offering historical insight never worked for Camden or were present at the key moments in the development of the production. I accept that the many unsubstantiated versions will prevail, but when Camden Council offered the opportunity for me to write my account I accepted with great humility.

The full legacy and influence of Black Heroes has yet to be analysed but individuals have spoken openly on the impact the show has had on them. “Black pride, cultural conscious awareness, educative, instructive” are some key phrases often heard.

From inception the show caught the imagination of the public in a hitherto unseen fashion. Celebrities and politicians were happy to be seen attending the stage celebrations of Black Heroes in The Hall of Fame.

Celebrity Praise

Leee John of Imagination fame, Sade, Linford Christie, Courtney Pine, Rodolph Walker, Norman Beaton, Natalie Cole, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Minister Farrah Khan, Pop Staples of the Staple Singers, Dick Gregory, Martha Reeves, Stevie Wonder, Barry White, Jim Brown, Jimmy Cliff, Gary Byrd, MPs, Bernie Grant, Diane Abbot, Paul Boateng, Keith Vaz,  Angela Davis, Rosa Parks, Muhammad Ali’s second wife Belinda Ali and their son John and many others who saw the show became life- long fans.

A Beacon of Black History Month

Black Heroes in the Hall of Fame was first staged in the same year that Black History Month was introduced in Britain, 1987. In that year, the show was seen as the main focus and beacon of Black History Month. The production is divided into musical tableaus featuring, the Kings and Queens of Africa, A tribute to Nelson and Winnie Mandela, Freedom Fighters, International Heroes and Sheroes, the Great Athletes and Champions, the Great Entertainers and a Debate between Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.

Sitting in the audience for the first night, one got the impression that the evening was going to be filled with a didactic list of names, brief biography of each character, awaiting to be designated hero or shero. Those of that disposition were only half right. The script was filled with pathos, irony, wit, and dare I say, educative nuance and historical information. The work “Edutainment” was born. The show opened with the titled song We need a Hall of Fame, composed by Flip Fraser and musical director Khareem Jamal.  Lights down and on came the Kings and Queens of Africa.

The second scene was titled the Freedom Fighters.  The Chorographer, Clive Johnson had created a musical scope which complimented the spoken narrative.  His chorography part African, part modern and contemporary, brought the house down.  The scene also featured the first dance routine of the show which set the stage alight!

With heavy reggae and African rhythms, the liberators marched and danced on stage: Cudjoe, Nanny, Toussaint L’ Overture, Harriet Tubman, Yaa Asantewa and  marching guerrilla fighters under the banner of the Black Panthers, the ANC and SWAPO.  At the end of the second scene, the audience had changed. They had been baptised in rhetoric of revolution fever. A sense of pride filled the packed auditorium.

Black Heroes was also able to reflect the concerns of the wider political debate. In 1987 Nelson Mandela was still serving his 27 years on Robben Island.  The third act was a tribute to Nelson and Winnie Mandela. Sadly both Prince Lincoln Thompson and Karen Lindsay, who played Nelson and Winnie are no longer with us.  Prince Lincoln the celebrated Reggae singer song writer, also wrote an original song, No Nonsense Business, as a tribute to Mandela. The scene had the effect of bringing attention to a wider audience the atrocities of the Apartheid regime in South Africa. Many of our younger audiences were visibly moved.

At that time, female characters presented in the media, tended to be seen as appendices to male achievement. The portrayal of Sojourner Truth, Angela Davis, Audrey Jeffers, Claudia Jones and Mary Seacole in Act 4, started a chain reaction. Finally in 2019, some 32 years after the first showing of Black Heroes, a film on the life of Sojourner Truth reached the cinema screen.

Act five presented the Great Athletes and Champions: From Anthea Gibson, the first Black woman to win Wimbledon in 1960, Sir Garfield, the first man to hit six, ‘sixes’ in a county cricket match, Jesse Owens, the first black man to win four Olympic gold medals and of course Muhammad Ali, the first man to regain the world heavy weight boxing title three times.

The Three Wise Men, a debate between Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King would launch the careers of two outstanding acting and directing talents. Fraser James and Femi Elufowoju.

Finally the Great Entertainers. Introduced by Count Prince Miller in his alter ego persona, Johnny Quicksilver. Count Prince Miller, brought his unique talent, professionalism, vast entertainment experience, grace and finesse to Black Heroes. He brought an aura of sophistication to everything he did.  He played the role of his hero Marcus Garvey with aplomb. He is also credited as being the only member of the cast to have appeared in every single performance of Black Heroes. His love and pride of being a part of the show is unrivalled.

The Heroes and Sheroes Behind The Scenes

Between the statements that success has two parents and failure is an orphan, lies a host of individuals whose contribution to the success of Black Heroes in The Hall of Fame, has not been recognised or adequately lauded. They were the original foot soldiers, who acted as generals in their fields. Their efforts in ensuring that the show opened on time with all the different facets dove tailing, was Herculean.

The Musical Director’s role often taken for granted, contributed enormously in creating the brand that became Black Heroes. His tireless drive for consistency and his work with the singers and chorus has to be commended. Khareem Jamal I salute you.

Away from the provision of the Arts and Libraries department in providing administrative support and office space, we needed a creative base. Gale Baptiste provided her home as the unofficial office of Black Heroes. The creative team went beyond the three creative heads of the project, accredited accordingly: Devised by Flip Fraser, written by JD Douglas with the music, directed by Khareem Jamal.

Gale Baptise sat on the Black Heroes Board and outside the cast, her immense work is hardly known.  I had known Gale Baptiste, before either of us would join our parents in England. We grew up in the same neighbourhood in St Lucia and our parents were long-time friends.  From Sunday lunch time the extended team would congregate on sofas, chairs, cushions, the floor (at her home) to put the show together. Number 26 Cromberdale Court, a flat in a newly build housing development, off Tottenham High Road would be the creative hub and workshop of the show.

If in future someone should put a plaque on the building with the inscription; Original Office and Home of Black Heroes in the Hall of Fame, they would be spot on.

We generated enough paperwork, on the Sundays, which would occupy Gale’s time for days at her full time post, at a well-known computer company. Two other regulars were Wenty Coke who sadly passed away a few years ago and Patrick Abrahams. The two were long-time friends of Flip’s and words between them were minimal.  They seemed to have developed a short hand way of communicating.

Having a recognizable logo was crucial in bringing attention to the show.  One Sunday as we gathered to work on whatever part of the show we were designated, Abe as he was popularly known, a former graphics designer in his native Jamaica, sat quietly on the floor. Some hours later someone asked him what he was doing. “Wait man wait,” came the reply.  Some ten minutes later he presented a collage in the shape of Africa filled with the heads, photos, and various images of the Heroes to be portrayed in Black Heroes.

This iconic image/logo would be the calling card of the show.  Internationally recognised as one of the most striking logos ever used for a theatrical presentation.  That much was constantly mentioned in all our overseas tours.  So the next time you see that logo on a T-shirt, calendar, baseball cap, remember the name of its originator and creator, Patrick Abraham, aka Abe.

Wenty Cooke was a quiet man of deep concentration. He was the first production manager of the show.  Reflecting on times passed, he was paid not large sums and very over worked. He would spend his time arriving at venues early, sorting out most technical problems and fade back into the background.  Years later his daughter would play a queen in the show. Our resident engineer, Jah Bunny also deserves inclusion as one of the Heroes in the engine room.

From the first set of shows at the Shaw Theatre, the audience were able to suspend belief and marvel at the costumes they were seeing.  From the opening sequence of the Kings and Queens of Africa to the final section of the Great Entertainers, every single character on stage was magnificently costumed.

In charge of costume was Cynthia Marrest. Her dedication to the show was as vital and equal to other heads of department. Soon she was joined by an equally enthusiastic costume designer a young Greek stage manager, Elera moonlighting as a “go to person”.

Two weeks before opening day she called me and asked to meet at a Tailor’s shop near Kentish Town station.  I arrived and walk in, to start negotiations for some men’s dinner jacket. The Greek owner said he was closing down and we could buy as many dinner Jackets, as we wanted.

He pointed to his wall of framed autographed photos of famous stars.  The Greek tailor had been providing suits and dinner jackets for films.  Beaming down was a signed autographed eight by ten gloss, photographed signed by Roger Moore from the film Live and Let Die.

Do you have any Roger Moore jackets? He went to the back of the store and came back with white and black dinner jackets worn by 007. How much do you want to pay?

Those dinner jackets were bought and worn by the five singers playing The Temptations, surreal moments fondly remembered.

The year before Black Heroes, Flip Fraser and myself had collaborated on a one night only show called Caribbana, staged at the Astoria Theatre, Charring Cross Road. The makeup lady, from that show, Glenda Joseph was brought on as head of makeup.  She transformed the actors into characters from scene to scene.  She introduced her friend, makeup artist Allison Edwards.  Alison took over from Glenda, and remains as Black Heroes official make up lady.  Without the lavish costumes, dramatic makeup, Black Heroes would have been a run of the mill show, struggling for an audience and recognition.

Black Heroes in the Hall of Fame introduced sixty six different characters in two and a half hour of stage time. Apart from the logistics of storing the costumes after the show, they had to be cleaned.  That part of the operation was left to one of the actors. Ritzy Richards. Ms Richards became our costume mistress. She would store the dirty costumes in her tiny flat and days later after sorting them would cart tens of black bags, to her local laundry. Her devotion to that side of the operation was never seen, but without her contribution it would  have been much harder to propel the show into the spectacular hit it became.  Black Heroes became her life, it still is to this day.  The engine room, the heartbeat of the show was staffed by many dedicated individuals. Many never took a bow on stage nor got mentioned. It is right that their contribution to Black Heroes is appreciated and recognised. In years they would be joined by many like-minded personnel like Sharon, Yvonne and Junior Parry.

In The Beginning.

In 1986 Camden Council’s Race Equality Department was headed by Claire Tallet and Jeff Morris, together they sourced funds for a Caribbean Focus Officer. Jeff Morris was particularly keen that Camden should participate in the year-round celebration of Caribbean Arts and Culture, celebrated in the UK.

The successful candidate would be based in the Libraries and Arts Department and I would manage the officer and oversee the series of events. The former editor of the Voice Newspaper, Flip Fraser applied. Flip casually walked into the interview room and unlike the other male candidates had not bothered to wear a dress shirt, tie or jacket.  My fellow panellist on the interview panel was aghast. Flip Fraser walked to his own drum beat.

Near the end of the interview, he was asked what ideas he had for a yearlong programme. Flip listed, talent shows, fashion shows, concerts, exhibitions, and listed up to six different ideas, twice that of the other candidates. His thinking was out of the box and that appealed to me.

At the end of the interview Dan Shaw, the senior Arts Officer looked at me and said it’s your call.  I had expected a collective decision. “Well you will be managing the successful candidate, so pick someone you can work with”

That was how I came to meet the man who would go on to devise Black Heroes in the Hall of Fame.  The show that ended being called Black Heroes started as a totally different project. August 17th, 1987, was the 100th year anniversary of the birth of the Jamaican Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey. The initial idea, was that Flip would produce a show on the life and legacy of Marcus Garvey.

After struggling to come up with the goods, Flip suggested that he broaden the project to include his hero Bob Marley.  He presented me with a poster of an American show called Legends, featuring about ten entertainers. Wax work images of Diana Ross, Al Green, Nat King Cole and others looked interesting.  When he discussed the idea with community activist and journalist, Ras Al he suggested that the Kings and Queens of Africa should be included.

Once Flip had set the idea in his head, he was more than happy incorporating ideas if they were workable. For instance Khareen Jamal the Musical Director of the show suggested the names of the Kings and Queens and produced a magnificent and vibrant musical score for that section.

The written script was a different matter. I had suggested a young writer called Mc Michael Mc. Malian to Flip.  He produced about five pages, workable in another project, but Flip felt it was not what he was looking for.

I suggested I write the narrative, and upon completion wrote the Three Wise Men. A debate between Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. (Later I would re-write, the Three Wise Men now called, The Great Debate into a full radio play which was broadcast on Radio 4)

As a matter of historical accuracy, I have included the first programme with full cast listing compiled by Flip himself. In the credit section it reads. All commentary researched and written by J.D. Douglas. Under the Three Wise Men (the Great debate) it reads script written by JD Douglas, except Martin Luther Kings’ I have a Dream dialogue. These are the two components of the entire show.

The Opening Night. A Sell out Performance.

There are many anecdotal memories I can recount of the early days of Black Heroes. That is for another show, as the saying goes. In the meantime, here is one of my favourites. In the Monday that the show opened.  Flip and myself were called to the office of the Shaw Theatre directorship: CEO, Ian Bowater and Jean Beaton, Artistic Director. We were informed that they would be cancelling the last of the fourth performance.  “There is no way you guys can fill the theatre for four consecutive shows”. We listened, argued, begged but to no avail. The buying pattern of the community, did not signal what would eventually happen. We received a second call on the Wednesday. As we entered the meeting room, before we could take our seats, almost in unison, they said. “Look guys the show is selling out we don’t know what to do. I think we have to put the fourth show back on”.

History will record that all four shows were sold out. The show moved to the Hackney Empire in August 1987 due to the efforts of Hackney Race Relations Department: Dan Thea, Keiran Kala and Dennis Bartholomew.  Ann Cartwright introduced us to the agent Henry Sellers and by December 1987 Black Heroes was playing three shows on a Sunday at the Astoria Theatre in the West End. The first production in the history of the West End theatre, to start at midnight. There are many who helped in different ways to popularise Black Heroes. The Journalist Jim White was the first to give the show national coverage in Time Out and The Independent.  The enduring attraction of Black Heroes continues to this day, due to many different hands and minds. The public has played a large part as well.

JD Douglas is presenting his talk on Black Heroes in the Hall of Fame as part of Black History Month Celebrations at St Pancras Square Library, London N1C 4AG, organised by Camden Black Workers Group 

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