We spoke to the creators of Five Years With The White Man about the upcoming show coming to VAULT Festival
Can you tell us a little about the show and what inspired you to share this story?
Five Years with the White Man is essentially a retelling of the life of the greatest Black Briton you’ve never heard of. Augustus Boyle Chamberlayne Merriman-Labor (or, as we call him, ABC for short), was a Sierra-Leonean satirist who came to London at the beginning of the twentieth century to make his name as the greatest writer of his generation. He navigated heartbreak, prejudice and financial destitution, to publish the gloriously urbane and funny Britons Through Negro Spectacles in 1909, detailing his experiences in London. But it was the prescience of what he had to say in that book, the familiarity of his voice, the moderness of his observations that felt so startling – they were crying out to be rediscovered. The team all felt it was almost criminal, that this critical voice from our past had been forgotten, when he clearly had so much to say of our present. Discovering ABC led us all on a wild goose chase. We reached out to his biographer – the amazing Dannell Jones – and his great nephew – the fascinating Melbourne Garber – and what began as a straight-laced biographical play soon took on new radical dimensions, in an attempt to match the sheer ambition and virtuosity of the story we were working with.
What message do you intend to promote through this performance?
We wanted to spark a nuanced discussion about identity as it relates to Britain’s imperial past. By bringing this lost voice back from the oblivion, we wanted to not only highlight how voices like his were sidelined and silenced by ignorance, bigotry and structural oppression; but also, to reveal the illuminating complexity of his perspective – and its sheer prescience. Our cultural conversation around the contributions that Black people have made to British history and culture remains in its infancy. Given media representations, one might be forgiven for believing that Black British history began with Windrush – and we were as a team passionate to redress this narrative. The show examines how the past can shape the future, and how we now, can reshape the past.
What could audiences expect from seeing the show?
Audiences can expect the story of A.B.C Merriman-Labor, from Sierra Leone to London, and back again – challenging the limitations of empire and navigating complex obligations of family, commerce and romance.
Audiences can also expect a queer love story – and a very modern take on ABC’s story. To say too much more would ruin the surprise. Let’s just say, this play might begin as a straightforward story, but as things progress, events take an unexpected turn.
What have you learnt while creating this show and what was challenging?
In the writing process, allowing room for chaos was so rewarding.
With any historical adaptation, and particularly when you are adapting a story for the very first time, the impulse to do justice to the source material can inhibit the natural creative impulse, and thereby end up chastening the impact.
Constantly challenging our internalised expectations of how to tell this story led to some rather unexpected results. Research into A.B.C’s studiousness led to a fever-dream sequence, featuring our protagonist climbing an aetherial staircase made out of books, stepping into the unknown. A conversation about vexed attitudes towards representations of Black people in period drama, led to metatheatrical interludes that broke the 4th wall in dynamic ways. To harp on any further would be to anticipate what we have in store for audiences this month. But suffice to say, we are all very proud of the ability of this story to provoke, amuse and, ultimately, move.
Where do you see Five Years With The White Man going?
Seeing the play picked for publication by Nick Hearn books, gave the entire production team great confidence. We see this show transferring and possibly touring in the coming months. In doing so we really hope to expose this unjustly forgotten story to as many as will benefit. We feel that this story has every potential to be adapted to other media, so we hope to see this story adapted to screen in the near future.
Click here to book for Five Years with the White Man, 28 Feb–5 March