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‘Personally I consider myself equal to any man who has ever lived’ says Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (Obioma Ugoala) in the imaginary letter that forms the centrepiece of Recognition. The real-life black British composer was born in 1875 to a Sierra Leonean doctor and a white English mother. He burst onto the British classical music scene after attending the Royal College of Music, having originally been gifted a violin by his grandfather. He was lauded by the likes of Edward Elgar and Hubert Parry, and toured America multiple times.
Samuel’s most famous composition, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, was until the Second World War the second most widely performed piece of choral music in Britain after Handel’s Messiah. Yet Samuel would die aged just 37, after collapsing at West Croydon Station exhausted with pneumonia. On the evidence in front of us, Samuel worked himself to the grave, forced to keep travelling and teaching after never being fairly compensated for his works’ commercial success.
108 years after his death, Black British performing arts student Song (Shiloh Coke) learns about Samuel and is inspired. The relationship that Song envisages between herself and her trailblazing predecessor is the subject matter of Amanda Wilkin and Rachael Nanyonjo’s soul-stirring new radio play Recognition. Song finds solace in her trailblazing predecessor, seeing parallels in their experiences of music and prejudice in Britain, despite the very different circumstances that they inhabit.
Self-doubt riddles them both at times. Song, for example, in her fear that her classmates see her solely as the ‘scholarship student’, irrespective of her talent. This is akin to Samuel’s visceral sensation of walking into a church rehearsal of his own composition one day, to find 30 white people in the audience staring at him. Yet both are incredibly ambitious and resilient. ‘I want to be seen, I want to be heard, I want to take up space and create’, says Song. And, as is the case in so many stories of the actualisation of the self, any shame in their identity soon transforms into a fierce pride in both their talent and their minority status.
Wilkin’s script is both eloquent and invigorating. “Where are you from?” Samuel recalls being asked at the Royal College of Music. “Croydon, I responded, and I felt the amusement spread across my face”. It is a rich emotional tapestry, channelling both the earnest passion of the modern voice, and the steady intent and repressed rage of the Victorian. The characters are then aligned subliminally through the occasional word re-appearing in each other’s lines.
The writing is well-researched, drawing on what we know about Samuel and his beliefs to spin passionately political rhetoric. The real-life Samuel was a proponent of Pan-Africanism, attending the first Pan-African Conference in London as a leading delegate, and making friends with W. E. B. Du Bois in America. Celebrating the talent of black people, Samuel is heard quoting Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk in Recognition: “[The] Negro folk–song—the rhythmic cry of the slave—stands to–day not simply as the sole American music… [but] as the singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people.”
Wilkins makes excellent use of the audio form, presenting its narratives as two interlaced dramatic monologues that provide space for each character’s voice to develop. As the play reaches its climatic conclusion, the chunks of monologue become shorter and shorter, as though they are speaking to each other.
Recognition offers an exploration of what it is to be talented and Black in the UK. We hear two characters forced to draw upon their identity in their work in a way that would be palatable for a white audience. They channel creativity through unjust constraints to create something truly profound, which appeals to both their audience and their true selves.
Recognition is playing online. For more information, see 45North’s website.