Co-writer and director Jesse Briton tells us who Fred Hampton was, and why his death at the age of 21 inspired his new show Messiah
What is Messiah about?
Messiah is about Fred Hampton, a 21 year-old Black Panther Party leader in Chicago, who was killed by Chicago Police during a targeted raid on the 4th December 1969. Fred was a remarkable figure in the Panthers who negotiated a non-violence pact between the the street gangs of Chicago and other disenfranchised people within the city. His organisation and mobilisation of this block terrified the state. For that reason he became the target of a secret FBI programme called COINTELPRO, aimed at targeting leaders of the civil rights movement.
How did you first hear about Fred Hampton and why did you decide to make a theatre show about his life?
I was watching a BBC documentary about the history of the Black Panthers. It was all new to me. In the middle of the documentary there was a 5 minute section on Fred. As soon as I saw him speaking I was transfixed. It didn’t seem like the rest of the footage. It didn’t seem old. It felt like they’d taken footage of someone speaking today and turned it into black and white. I’m quite interested in History so i’ve watched a lot of old black and white footage, but i’ve never seen anything like that. Fred, and his words, transcended time. I felt like he was in the room with me. I was fascinated and had to learn more. For me, the journey of making the show has also been a process of discovering why I was so affected by that moment.
How do you think the themes of the show chime with today?
Sadly the story of Fred’s demise is not so unusual to us: a young black man dying as a result of Police action. But Fred’s story goes beyond that. It’s an analysis of structural inequality; why people are driven to radical action; the power of state to control the individual; and the potential for revolution that exists in all of us.
It feels like we’re at a turning point in history, where established structures and traditions are being questioned and tested. In trying to imagine the future that might await us, we’ve turned to the past for guidance. I think audiences will be surprised by how contemporary this story feels.
Tell us about your partnership with Paula B Stanic
Paula has been the guiding light of this project. She made her own connection with Fred, entirely separate from mine, and has held on to it tightly; nurturing this delicate and finely balanced show into life. The process has been unusual by traditional writing standards. It’s required her to work in response to the devising impulses of actors white the rehearsal room itself, outside the comfort and safety of a writers room! She’s flourished within this environment and acted like a homing beacon for us – constantly drawing us back to the knotty, contradictory, and beautiful truths of humanity.
How do you want audiences to leave the show feeling?
I’d like the audience to leave the show feeling energised, aware of the opportunity they have to affect change, and an increased curiosity about the forces affecting their own community. I’d also like them to have a good time. At the heart of the show is the loving, playful and authentic relationship between Fred and his pregnant partner Deborah Johnson. It’s joyous just to be in the same room as this couple as they poke, prod and fall in love all over again!
Messiah is at Stratford Circus Arts Centre from 27 – 30 November, then touring – more info and tickets here
Join the discussion