It’s not very often you come across a piece of theatre that inspires you to go and find out more about a protagonist that you’ve never heard of – in the case of Recognition it’s Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a 19th-century black, British composer whose work is mainly unknown to modern audiences and whose story deserves telling.
However, the play is not just about him as it’s also about Song, a young black, music student in the 21st century who discovers Coleridge-Taylor and he becomes an inspiration when she learns about the composer’s legacy and his music inspires her as she struggles to fight the demons in her head that are telling her she’s not good enough.
Their two stories intertwine as we journey from one time and space to another. At times each musician looks at what’s going on in the past and in the future and whilst that might sound complicated it isn’t. Along the way, we learn all about Coleridge-Taylor who was born in 1875 in Holborn to an English mother and a father from Sierra Leone. His parents never married and Coleridge-Taylor never met his father being brought up by his mother and stepfather in Croydon. He was a child prodigy and went to study at the Royal College of Music when he was 15. There as the only student of colour he struggled but overcame them to become a respected composer, his most famous work being “Hiawatha’s Wedding Fest”.
Song also has her struggles at college as she also has to deal with prejudice and the curriculum which concentrates on teaching about white, male composers ignoring their black and female counterparts. She has great doubts about her ability but she overcomes them by using Coleridge-Taylor as a role model, taking up his baton both figuratively and literally whilst showing her own strength of character.
Paul Adeyefa as Coleridge-Taylor is a charismatic actor with who the audience has great empathy for, as we watch his tussles with authority. Adeyefa is mesmeric as a man out of time and place and we feel his pain as he deals with his inner demons. Kibong Tanji is wonderful as Song as she fights her demons, argues with the faculty members and tries to come to terms with the situation she’s in. She’s always convincing wearing her heart on her sleeve and by the end the audience is with her on her journey – a wonderful all-round performance. Mentions should also be made of the excellent ensemble: Alice Stokoe, Deborah Tracey, Matthew Romaine, David Monteith and Barnaby Power who play various parts such as Song’s parents, Coleridge-Taylor’s mother, tutors, friends and the voices in Song’s head amongst many others.
There are also six musicians on stage the whole time, a string quartet augmented by drums and a piano. They are often used as a subtle background to the action or as backing for gospel singers and also to play the compositions of Coleridge-Taylor and Song. Their playing was beautifully balanced and sublime and never intrusive giving another layer to the production. This was aided and abated by some wonderful video projections from Stan Orwin-Fraser. At times the projections were used figuratively to illustrate location as the staging was very simple. They were very subtle and almost abstract whether the action was in Song’s home or in a cobbled Victorian street, black and white and slightly blurred so they set the scene but didn’t intrude on the action. There were also abstract projections for the atmosphere but also more literal projections such as maps, dates, texts, shadows of musicians etc.
The whole production was immaculately directed and choreographed by Rachel Nanyang (who co-created the piece along with the writer Amanda Wilkin) giving the seven cast members room to breathe and develop the characters.
Ostensibly Recognition is a story about the problems two black musicians have, dealing with prejudice and the problems they have to face daily. However, it’s also a universal story about the struggles all artists have to make themselves felt in a world that doesn’t always want to see and hear their work. Where they struggle to make a living and are exploited by managers and agents – Coleridge-Taylor sold “Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast” for 15 guineas (£15.75 or £1400 in today’s money) and never received any royalties which lead to the forming of the Performing Rights Society.
Recognition is a superb piece of theatre combining a story that needed telling, superb performances from all the cast, wonderful music, excellent video projections, splendid costumes and staging all brought together by seamless direction. It’s refreshing to see theatre that educates, illuminates and entertains. It could have been a bit of a polemic but the writing is so tight and concise, it doesn’t allow itself to go down that road.
As they say in their mission statement, the purpose of Talawa, the producers behind Recognition, is to champion black excellence in theatre, to nurture talent and tell inspirational and passionate stories reflecting black experiences through art and they’ve definitely achieved all that and more with this production.
This year Croydon is the London Borough Of Culture and if this is the standard of work they’re putting on, it’s going to be a wonderful year for the borough. So get yourself down to south London before Recognition closes – you won’t regret it.
Review by Alan Fitter
I want to be nothing in the world except what I am – a musician’ – Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.
Meet Song, a young Black composer of the modern generation. Her composition deadline is fast-approaching, and the pressure is high.
Discovering Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the classical composer, Song learns she is joining a legacy of Black classical music in Britain she never even knew existed. His captivating scores inspire her, but will she claim her voice?
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Paul Adeyefa
Song Kibong Tanji
Ola David Monteith
Teacher Barnaby Power
William Hurlstone Matthew Romain
Dani Alice Stokoe
Comfort Deborah Tracey
Musicians Eve Abiodun
Co-creators Amanda Wilkin and Rachael Nanyonjo
Writer Amanda Wilkin
Director Rachael Nanyonjo
Producer Samantha Nurse
Composers Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Cassie Kinoshi
Arranger Cassie Kinoshi
Assistant Director lydia luke
Musical Director Rio Kai
Designer Jasmine Swan
Lighting Designer Guy Hoare
Projection Designer Stanley Orwin-Fraser (for Duncan McLean Projection)
Sound Designer Tom Foskett-Barnes
Sound Design Associate Harry Halliday
Production Manager Adam Smith
Voice Coach Hazel Holder
Costume Supervisor Jennie Quirk
Casting Director Lucy Jenkins and Sooki McShane (JM Casting)
Dramaturg Elayce Ismail
Choreographer Rachael Nanyanjo
Assistant Choreographer Bafana S Matea
Talawa Studios, Fairfield Halls, Park Lane, Croydon, CR9 1DG