On Thursday night, Lenny Henry made me cry. I don’t know if he meant to, but he did. He used to try to make people laugh, but he wasn’t always good at it. It’s hard to make people laugh. You have to feel that the person who’s trying to do it isn’t trying too hard. I don’t know if Lenny Henry was trying, on Thursday night, to make a theatre full of people cry. I don’t know if the other people in the theatre did cry, or if they cried when they got home. But when I got on the bus, after two and a half hours of watching Lenny Henry dominate a stage, I was fighting off tears.
He was playing the central part in Fences, a play written in 1987, but set thirty years before. It’s by August Wilson. It won a Pulitzer Prize. It’s set in a part of Pittsburgh called The Hill. And it’s about a man who thinks he could have been a player, could in fact have been a big league baseball player, but who couldn’t hit the big league, in sport or anything else, because he was born at a time when it was hard to hit the big league if you were black.
He killed a man. He went to prison. He’s been working as a “garbage-man” since he got out. He has a house. He used his brother’s disability benefit to buy his family a house. He has a son from a first marriage, who plays jazz and asks him for money, and a son from a second marriage, who’s very good at sport. This son has a hope of a future being paid to play football. But his father, who’s called Troy – and who does seem a bit like a character from classical drama – won’t let him. His father, in fact, who loves his wife, and flirts with her, and makes you think how lovely it is that someone who’s been married for 18 years still flirts with his wife, is a bully.
Lenny Henry makes a very good bully. He makes a very good man who’s strong, and weak, and loving, and jealous, and proud, and bitter, and full – so full you sometimes think it might kill him – of rage. He didn’t want to work as a “garbage man”, but he did. He knew that he wouldn’t have the choice to do much else. And the people around him know that they have to do what the world they live in lets them do. His wife, Rose knows that she has to clean, and smile, and wash, and iron, and cook. His friend Jim, who works with Troy on the “garbage” truck, knows that the most he can look forward to is a drink with Troy at the end of the week. His son Cory knows that if his father says he can’t follow his dream, and get paid to play football, he can’t. He knows that when a big, strong man who’s been in prison for killing someone, and who also happens to be your father, says you can’t do something, you can’t.
The play isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty damn good. Here are people muddling along, as we all do, and sometimes making a mess of things, as we all do. Here are people wanting to be good to the people around them, but being distracted by lost dreams they can’t quite shake off.
Sitting in that theatre, and not in front of the tiny screen that seems to have taken over every aspect of your life, you’re sucked into their pain, and rage, and hopes, and dreams. Sitting there, and gazing at these people being other people, you can’t help thinking that it takes art, and sometimes even the live performance of art, to take you away from yourself, and make you think – in a way you often don’t get the chance to think – about what it’s like to be somebody else.
Standing on that stage, Lenny Henry made me think about all the men who grew up in a time when you had to sit in a different part of a bus if you were black, and play in a different baseball team and go to a different school. He made me think of the men who grew up doing those things and who ended up in prison. And he made me think of all the black men who are in prison now. Nearly 60 years after the play is set, 13 per cent of the American population is black, but 37 per cent of the people in American prisons. Two per cent of the British population is black, but 14 per cent of the people in British prisons. That’s seven times higher than the average. Seven times higher than the average is an awful lot.
As Lenny Henry howled out his rage, I thought of a friend who went to a young offenders’ institute when he was a teenager, and whose son, 30 years later, has just come out of jail. I thought about another friend who came to Italy from the Ivory Coast when he was 19, and who worked as a street vendor, and then in a factory, and then driving a truck. When he moved to England a year ago, he worked as a “garbage man”, and now he works in a care home. He works hard, and he’s pleased to work, but he did once have other dreams.
I also thought of the time I wrote a piece about black British comedy, and what Lenny Henry was trying to do to promote it, and I wrote that what he was trying to do was really good, but that quite a lot of the comedy he was trying to promote didn’t really make you laugh. When the piece appeared, it didn’t have the bit about the comedy not making you laugh. The piece, which had my name on it, made you think I thought the comedy was really good. As if you couldn’t say anything critical about comedy that was made by someone who was black.
Most of all, on Thursday night, I thought that Lenny Henry was a very, very good actor, and one who could hold a stage, and a theatre, and a play that’s probably a bit too long, and make you not want that play to end. He was on stage with some other very good actors, actors whose names we should all know. But many of us won’t. If you’re a black actor in this country, you don’t get the chance to do many plays. You don’t get the chance to do much film or TV. You can’t just audition to play a character because you like the sound of the character. You only get to audition for a character who’s black.
In a city where 15 per cent of the population is black – 40 per cent in boroughs like mine – it shouldn’t be a big deal to go and see a play where the actors, and the characters, are all black. It shouldn’t be a big deal to hear the rhythms and cadences you find in the speech of African-Americans, and in the speech of people from the Caribbean, in a West End theatre. It shouldn’t be a big deal to see a big chunk of a West End audience that’s black.
It shouldn’t be, but it is.
Last week, it was 65 years since the Empire Windrush arrived in this country, with 493 Jamaicans who hoped for a better life. It’s hard to know if they got it. There are so many lives we could all live, and sometimes we can’t know if it’s better to stay or leave. The London they came to was very different to the London you find now. If you want to know how different, read The Lonely Londoners, by Sam Selvon. This was a world where you could turn up at a boarding house and see a sign saying “No blacks, no dogs, no Irish.”
You don’t, thank God, see signs like that now. But you also don’t see many of the children of the people who came over on the Windrush running businesses, or universities, or newspapers, or law firms. You don’t see many of them passing laws in Parliament or passing sentences in court. And you do still find quite a lot of evidence which seems to show that the institutions of this country will support you less if you’re black. The reports on Dispatches last week, for example, which seemed to show that the police force of this country, which should have tried to support the family of a boy who was murdered at a bus stop, and should have tried to catch his killers, chose to spy on his family, hoping to “discredit” them, instead.
Lenny Henry was born a year after Fences is set, and 10 years after The Empire Windrush moored on these shores. In middle age, he has shrugged off his past, and learnt a new craft. He has learnt, you could say, to a sing a new song. If only the country he lives in could learn to sing a new song, too.