starring: Criscentia Spence, Karen Swan, Gurpreet Bopari, Jason Adam
directed by Jon Morris
written by Paul Magson
Nine days before he was assassinated, African-American civil rights leader, Malcolm X visited Smethwick to investigate racism in the town. Now, playright, Paul Magson, brings the story that visit to the stage with his new play, Marshall Street. It's a thrilling project.
Whenever Malcom X's visit is mentioned invariably you'll see eyebrows raised in disbelief...
Prior to a short West Midlands tour, Paul Magson talked about the play. The showdates are often pay what you will/can afford. Book early if you can, it's a very hot ticket!
OUTSIDELEFT: Marshall Street is a pretty exciting project. Any public discussion of racism in the UK is to be welcomed...
PAUL MAGSON: Not a day goes by when we hear more allegations of racism against the individuals and bodies that govern and guide us. There is racist chanting from football terraces – the worst it's been in decades. An entire generation that helped shape and rebuild these Islands post-war has recently been treated in the most appalling and disgusting manner by their own government. After three years, Brexit is ramshackle, confusing and continues to divide the nation. So much of that was sold under questionable and false prospectuses regarding immigration. I have received "propaganda" though my door and on social media opposing the opening of an Islamic learning centre near where I live in Bearwood – the tone smacked of Smethwick '65.
It's easy to ignore or not notice the bigger picture outside our own day-to-day grind. Sometimes a quick reminder from history is all it takes to snap today sharply into focus. When I try to quantify what racism is and why this hate exists, it bewilders me. It bewilders me that it has ever existed. But it does and always has. Theatre can show and tell. It makes you listen, learn and laugh. It draws you in and includes you. Theatre can also put remarkable demands on audiences – who are you in this story? Theatre and storytelling have always been a catalyst for discussion. I hope "Marshall Street" not only prompts discussion about racism but all forms of hatred and inequality.
OL: A lot of people simply don't know that Malcolm X visited Smethwick...
PM: A lot of people don't know that Malcolm X ever came to the UK let alone Smethwick. I can't remember when I first learnt that he had once trod the streets that I had. I know I was young. The "mythology" always seemed to be somewhere in my consciousness. Junior school age feels about right – early 1980s. At that age I wouldn't have know who Malcolm X was or why he came to my hometown. But something made it all significant enough for me to remember. By the time Denzel Washington played him on the big screen in the early 90s I knew who he was. I'd tell my Brummie mates that Denzel came to Smethwick back in the day. They'd be, like "Yeah. Whatever. Along with Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and Jesus Christ…"
Even now, during the drive to get "Marshall Street" from page to stage, some people still think the concept is fictional and something I've made up. Probably because the notion of one of the poster boys of the civil rights movement visiting an unremarkable, industrial town in the Midlands sounds absurd. But some of us know how remarkable Smethwick actually is. Yes, Malcolm X came here and more people should know about it.
Playwright, Paul Magson
OL: Is this play about the visit of Malcolm X in 65, about Avtar Singh Johal the man from the Indian Workers Association, or about Smethwick, Birmingham and the black country now...
PM: "Marshall Street" is about Smethwick and the people of Smethwick. In the play, four characters reflect on Malcolm X's visit just over a week later – on the day that news is reaching the UK about his assassination in New York. By reflecting on this significant day, the characters are able to expand on their own stories – their whys and wherefores and their lives in Smethwick. They say, write about what you know. I'm not a political or social historian. I'm not a scholar on Malcolm X and the civil rights movement. I am, however, intensely passionate about the town I've lived in all of my life and the people in it.
OL: How did you decide on the format (- it's four monologues I think - I can be wrong often am!)
PM: Originally, the then untitled "Marshall Street" was a one-person show. There is often little money in the arts so you plan to do things as budget-friendly as possible. And one-person shows are knackering and I'm not getting any younger. As an actor I've done many monologue style pieces of theatre. I've always found this style – the direct speaking to audiences – beautifully simple and incredibly powerful. It is storytelling at its most honest. How cultures and civilisations have always done it and will continue to. Though my characters are fictional, they are all based on real people, events and experiences. The natural first stage of the presentation of these characters always seemed to be through monologues. Getting Arts Council England Funding to support the project has been a massive bonus to getting the show off the ground.
OL: Can you say something about the qualities you saw that inspired your casting?
PM: My director, Jon Morris, stated that he wanted to collaborate with actors who are open-minded. Prepared to take a risk and willing to listen to themselves, each other and the world around them. The casting day Jon facilitated was not a case of actors preparing a couple of audition pieces and presenting to us, but a group session that involved collaboration and teamwork. This method of audition is a great way to see team dynamics at work. It felt more like a rehearsal and/or wellbeing session than the sometimes nervy and judgemental atmosphere of the audition room. We were stunned by the quality of talent and the enthusiasm for the project from the auditionees was remarkable.
Personally, there were two things that I was looking for when casting. Actors who could bring something of themselves to inform the character and the character's story. For example, my character Bernice is a Windrush generation immigrant from Jamaica. She is living in Smethwick in the 60s and is a nurse. Criscentia Spence, who will be playing Bernice is the daughter of Windrush generation immigrants from Jamaica who moved to Smethwick in the 60s. Criscentia is also a qualified nurse. She is also a writer herself and a speaker of Jamaican Patois. Talk about lucking-out!! Perfect. The other thing I was looking for when casting was a sense of humour. The subject matter of "Marshall Street" is bleak and ugly at times but not without hope and optimism. It is important to me that as a creative unit – actors, director, design and me - we maintain a sense of humour. A sense of humanity.
OL: Is Marshall Street entertaining? (I know this seems like a weird question - but a lot of message media forgets that people need to be entertained too they don't just need an education. I always think this is a flaw with say a lot of the work of the understandably revered Ken Loach. But have you seen The Hate U Give? So stressful it made me lose my breath. It is a scary education that should be shown in schools - but great entertainment too.
PM: There is a fine line between enough or too much historical fact and enough or too much entertaining, human story. I hope that why I present will be balanced on that fine line. "Marshall Street" does not get swamped in the logistics and mechanics of Malcolm X's visit. However, the amazing work of Avtar Singh Johal and the IWA naturally has to be referenced. The way in which my monologues overlap and inter-cut hopefully create and energetic and lively experience for the audience. And I would be doing a great disservice to Smethwick if my characters were devoid of humour. Gurpreet Boparai, the actor who successfully auditioned for the part of Harbhajan, displayed this humour magnificently. His timing in the little bit of text work we did was spot on. Harbhajan's story is probably the most explicit and obvious display of racism against any of the characters in the play. Moments of humour and Gurpreet's natural timing of theses moments will, yes, make you laugh but also add more weight and power to all of the bad stuff that is portrayed.
OL: I lived abroad for a long time, where it is understood I think that racism takes constant vigilance so even in small ways for people who want to disconnect themselves or are just disconnected you have trouble ignoring Martin Luther Kings birthday... Or MLK blvd... That is part of the whole program. Those things only happen after a massive public push. and political power. Is there anything like that here?
PM: Malcolm X's visit is remembered on Marshall Street with a blue plaque. More recently we've had other memorials erected to celebrate and acknowledge the contributions that other Black and Asian people have made in Smethwick and the surrounding areas. There is a beautiful statue "The Lions of the Great War" by the Gurdwara on Smethwick High Street to remember the Indians of all faiths that fought and fell during the Great War. In West Bromwich a statue celebrating three of my childhood heroes has recently been erected. The "Three Degrees" - West Bromwich Albion's trio of Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham and Brendon Batson were three footballers who, despite racist abuse from the terraces, blazed a trail for Black footballers to follow. They did this with grace, dignity and phenomenal footballing skill. More memorials like these can only continue to remind us and educate us.
OL: Is racism in the UK worse in 1965 or 2025...?
PM: I wasn't born when Malcolm X arrived in Smethwick in 1965. I wasn't around until 1973. It's no accident that later in '65 the first race relations act was passed in the UK. It's no accident that two years after X's visit the first Black headteacher was appointed in a UK school. Tony O'Connor was appointed head of Bearwood Primary School in Smethwick in September 1967. In September 1978 a five year old me joins the story when I attend Bearwood Primary with the very same Mr O'Connor as head. He was strict and terrified me, but as we're on the subject of statues and memorials……
In some way I think I owe it to Malcolm X, and Avtar and the IWA, and the Lions of the Great War, and Regis, Cunningham and Batson, and strict Mr O'Connor that, as a little white boy I was able to spend my formative years making friends with boys and girls of all colours and beliefs. That is my Smethwick.
It's tricky to say whether racism was worse in 1965 than it is now. And I guess some would rightfully argue that I'm no one to judge. But I've always had eyes, ears and a heart. There are certainly more platforms for people to peddle all sorts of hatred and nonsense these days. Whatever is going on in the world right now it has been enough to rile me up me and compel me to write "Marshall Street."
Tue 24 Sep, 7pm
Arena Theatre, Wolverhampton
Book on 01902 321 321 or online here
FREE to attend as part of the Arena Collaborative Theatremakers Event
(This will be a 30-40 min extract of Marshall Street, in a showcase evening with other new theatre work.)
Thu 26 Sep, 8pm
Thimblemill Library, Smethwick
Book on 0121 569 4943, email your ticket request to firstname.lastname@example.org
or in person at the Library
FREE to attend but there will be a ‘pay what you feel’ collection at the end of the show.
Please note there is no bar at this venue, but you are welcome to bring your own drinks
Promoted by the Friends of Thimblemill Library and supported by Black Country Touring
Fri 27 Sep, 6.30pm
Birmingham Hippodrome (PWC)
FREE performance followed by post show discussion
Book online or call 0844 338 5000 (please note calls cost 4.5p per min + your standard network charge
Wed 2 Oct, 8pm
Old Joint Stock Theatre, Birmingham
Book on 0121 200 0946 or online
Fri 4 Oct, 8pm
CAP Centre, Smethwick
Book on 0121 565 3273 or in person at the centre
Light refreshments available to purchase from the cafe
Promoted by the CAP Centre and supported by Black Country Touring
Sat 5 Oct, 2pm
Book on 0121 569 4940 or email your ticket request to email@example.com or in person at the library
FREE to attend but there will be a ‘pay what you feel’ collection at the end of the show