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Alfred Fagon: a brilliant playwright whose work must not be forgotten

The Guardian - Tue May 4 12:10

Alfred Fagon was many things before becoming a playwright at the vanguard of the black British theatre movement of the 1970s and 80s: welder, champion boxer, railway worker, army man, poet and actor, with a colourful circle of friends including the model Christine Keeler. “He put no limits on himself and he didn’t want to follow any pattern,” says his friend Yvonne Brewster, the actor and director who, after his death, co-founded the Alfred Fagon awards to recognise black British writing talent.

Born in Jamaica into a sprawling household of 10 siblings, he left school to work with his father on the family’s orange plantation at 13 and emigrated to Britain in 1955, at the age of 18.

He worked for British Rail in Nottingham before joining the army for a time and becoming a middleweight boxing champion in the Royal Corps of Signals. He then settled in Bristol where he started acting as an extra on television and then took professional parts on stage and screen.

Brewster met him in the 70s, when he was hanging out at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, and where he had performed in the Trinidadian playwright Mustapha Matura’s Black Pieces. Fagon quickly became a regular at Brewster’s flat in Soho, where he would turn up for coffee and long chats.

Yvonne Brewster
‘He put no limits on himself’ ... Yvonne Brewster on Fagon

She remembers him as a good-natured man – “a Rastafarian with just one dreadlock” – who had a natural facility for writing. “He used to pick the lock to the building. We were on the sixth floor so he’d come up and knock. He’d sit down and say, ‘So you know something about playwriting’ to me.”

He told Brewster he found the art of playwriting easy: “He said it felt like writing down what people were saying and putting a twist on it. I told him I knew people – Derek Walcott, Wole Soyinka – who wouldn’t say it was easy!”

In 1972, Brewster attended the opening of Fagon’s debut play, 11 Josephine House, set in a block of flats in Bristol, when it was staged at the Almost Free theatre in Soho. It sold out most nights and she returned several times: “I learned a lot from it,” she says. His other plays included Shakespeare Country, broadcast on BBC Two, Four Hundred Pounds, staged at the Royal Court, and Lonely Cowboy at the Tricycle theatre (now Kiln).

The Death of a Black Man, featuring the interplay between three characters in a swanky King’s Road flat, opened at Hampstead theatre in 1975. This month, Dawn Walton is directing a revival at the same theatre with actors Nickcolia King-N’da, Natalie Simpson and Toyin Omari-Kinch.

It is an ambitious play whose themes encompass class, race, gender politics, Marxism, capitalism and the pan-African movement, as well as discussions on belonging and assimilation. “We are having the same conversations on how we live in this country as black people, what our relationship to money and power is as people of Caribbean descent, and how we attain these things – through evolution or revolution,” says Walton.

The revival was originally planned for last year but it has gained in power and prescience, Walton believes, particularly in the light of the Black Lives Matter movement. The play explores black British identity in intersectional ways, she says, negotiating the subject of class through its three central figures from across the social spectrum. “The flat is owned by a successful 18-year-old businessman who is black, which must have been an arresting image in 1975. It confounds stereotype in that opening scene and grows from there.”

Dawn Walton
‘He was extraordinary’ … Dawn Walton, who is directing a revival of Fagon’s The Death of a Black Man at Hampstead theatre. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/the Guardian

In 1986, Fagon died at the age of 49 outside his own home but remained unidentified by the police, Brewster says. “We realised he was missing and said, ‘Where’s Alfred?’ [The director] Roland Rees and his agent, Harriet Cruickshank, made inquiries and found he had had a heart attack. The police had just scooped him up and got rid of him. There is no grave for Alfred Fagon. He was put in a pauper’s grave. He had a BBC script on him and the police could have done the research, but they didn’t. It sent shockwaves through the [acting] community.”

Fagon’s friends arranged a memorial event at the Tricycle and Brewster found herself passing around a hat for a collection.” I don’t know what I was thinking, but we got £2,000 just from passing it around.” The money was originally set to be awarded to a young black playwright to “buy time with which to write”, but it eventually led to the creation of the Alfred Fagon award, co-founded by Brewster, Rees and Oscar James.

The awards have an illustrious record of winners including Michaela Coel, Theresa Ikoko and Roy Williams. Juliet Gilkes Romero was last year’s recipient for The Whip, performed to acclaim at the RSC. Gilkes Romero, who is writing a drama about the Black Lives Matter movement and criminal justice for the Synergy Theatre Project, believes that Fagon was seeking a new kind of artistic freedom to reflect the times in which he lived, “but most of all to be heard and taken seriously as a talented black British writer”.

Prescient … The Death of a Black Man, starring Nickcolia King-N’da, Natalie Simpson and Toyin Omari-Kinch.
Prescient … The Death of a Black Man, starring Nickcolia King-N’da, Natalie Simpson and Toyin Omari-Kinch. Photograph: Shaun Webb

What troubles her is that his work is not better known, even if his name is immortalised by the award. “I would like to see more black writers staged, and new writing staged, but I would also like to see revivals from the 70s and 80s. I have never seen Alfred Fagon’s work before and yet I have won his prize.”

Walton, too, feels frustration at how little is remembered of his life: “When you Google Alfred Fagon, apart from the award, the only thing you read about him are the circumstances of his death. I find that really upsetting. He was an extraordinary man with an impressive body of work and there is space for revivals of his other plays. I have long been in love with Lonely Cowboy, which is about gentrification in Brixton. But like many black artists, he suffers from having his work put on once and never seen again.”

She was dismayed to find that almost everyone she spoke to in her research for The Death of a Black Man had not seen his work even if they had heard of him. It is why this revival is so important, she says. “We are starting to lose his contemporaries and you lose a whole strand of black British achievement with them if you don’t revive the work.”