Part of 45North’s Written on the Waves season, Amanda Wilkin’s Recognition brings two composers together across the centuries in a piece about music, memory and who deserves to be remembered in the canon of great composers (and who deserves to make that decision).
Song, a Black female student, is staring at her composition in 2020. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), a Black musician and composer in 1898, hears his Ballade in A minor performed for the first time. In his words as we first meet him, he discusses a church meeting “about God’s great mistake in creating the Black man”.
In his letters and his picture, Song finds Coleridge-Taylor “quietly commanding”. In his words, he is “always a gentleman” despite the injustices he suffered from being a child and into adulthood. One notable event is mentioned, where he arrives to conduct at the Royal Albert Hall but is detained by the doorman who notes his skin colour with surprise and disbelief.
This play is a deeply moving and honest exploration of the enforced invisibility of the Black community since time began – a curiosity in the Victorian era, Coleridge-Taylor is patronised by his white colleagues (in both definitions of the word, calling him “the African Mahler”) but despite some popular success, he is not allowed to include his heritage in his work and descends into poverty.
Song, when reading the words of this composer of the past, muses on the ability of a photograph to allow a sitter to “look down the lens and show as much as we want to … if we want to”. In her quest to see past the “whitewashing” of the past and the artists within it, she seeks inspiration from this man who missed out on lasting recognition.
Coleridge-Taylor marries Jessie, whose family cannot see beyond his colour, but who chooses him over the disapproval and curiosity of others. What may be a sad story is turned into something stronger as Song ensures this man is remembered for his life and work.
Directed by Rachael Nanjonjo, this is a fine two-hander in which Obioma Ugoala as Samuel and Shiloh Coke as Song provide strong performances, which would work well should this be developed into a stage production. The music, too, is exceptional, with original pieces by Cassie Kinoshi, and all played by pianist Deschanel Gordon, violinist Fra Rustumji, and cellist Zara Hudson-Kozdoj.
You can listen to Recognition and the other audio plays in the Written on the Waves season here.
A second series begins on the 27 May with a play released every two weeks until August.