When last I wrote about Giles Terera, he had left me in a fever, buzzing with excited pride. Creator, producer, host, and participant of Walk in the Light, he'd put on the edifying and emotionally charged remembrance of the half century of Black contribution to the British stage, at the National Theatre. As I wrote up my experience of the final day's celebration, I wanted to know more: not just about the actors on the stage and those that had paved the way before them, but about Terera, too.
He had seemed very self-contained as a moderator but came alive as a singer*. In interview, he turns out to be eloquent, circumspect and friendly; a multi-dimensional performer, who sings, writes, composes, and acts, and who consequently, has not been out of work since graduation. Terera's is an incredible work ethic, and the mind boggles to think how he managed, over eight months, to pull together an event of this calibre and play a daily role in the acclaimed Book of Mormon musical, whilst finishing a documentary about Shakespeare, called Muse of Fire, which will air on the BBC in October.
Prompted by the year-long fiftieth anniversary reflection of the National Theatre itself, Terera proactively wrote to Nicholas Hytner proposing to set a spot light on the extraordinary achievements that Black performers had contributed. That he received the green-light to stage the event is some clue at the changing will at the National. This was important to Terera because it was at the National that he had first began his career; where he counts some of his most valuable, fun, and cherished times. As his idea was handed over to the Platforms department, the sheer scope of his ambition became ever clearer and expanded into a four part event.
Described by Terera as
"the big flagship institution, funded by government, that has to justify its expenditure and has to make a certain amount of money, it's not going to be [a] nimble, guerrilla unit"."But," says Giles "although it is aware, as was made clear during the week by many voices, that there is so much more to do, it is open to asking the right questions about how to move outside its core audience and repertoire."
His mantra seems to be to repeatedly ask whether The Arts reflect and depict the society in which we find ourselves today; whether society is properly represented in the choice of works, in the audiences that pay to be entertained, and in the honours that are given.
Terera makes clear that in pulling together Walk in the Light, he had two principles to guide his focus: to acknowledge and inspire. He wanted, on the one hand, to honour the incredible Black talent that have, with foresight, vision and bravery, achieved so much. On the other hand he wanted to inspire younger people, who are starting out and who will ultimately be running the industry, to believe that they can do whatever it is they set out to do. This, you sense, is his way of handing on some of the support that received along the way.
He credits two women particularly for their encouragement and belief in him. First his mother, whom he describes as "very smart, hardworking, loving, self-sacrificing" and whose vivid storytelling he remembers along with her reminder that he deserved to be wherever he chose to go and that he was not to have any tell him otherwise. He recounts her strong faith and her belief that not to use one's gift was a sin. Second, a great voice teacher, Claudette Williams. She looked out for him when he arrived green at drama school; educated him on African-American writers like Hurston, Hughes, and Wilson; and then went on crucially to say that when he arrived at the National, he would need to know "how to speak", how to find that voice of authenticity in which his feelings and thoughts were grounded and connected and set about coaching him.
"Ofcourse! Now that there is a line of acknowledgement that Black people are a part of this culture and society, and particularly in this industry, so many young actors (Black and White) are led to believe that everything is fine. That can be dangerous! The Arts, even as it is seen to be more liberal, is a reflection of the society in which we live. And the obstacles are the same in life as they are in this profession. It is a fact that when I meet new people, they will form opinions of me based on the colour of my skin."
He adds an honest after thought:
"The journey from my flat to work is often the hardest one, because that's where you have to face people's insecurities and prejudices. There is still a lot to do."
Photo credit: Kayi Ushe. The full company of actors on Sunday 21 July, 2103. Giles Terera is front centre.
What many have taken away from Walk in the Light is a sense of belonging; a sense of connection. A chipping away at that loneliness that often comes from being the only black person in the room. The knowledge that there is a history; that there is continuity; there is a strength from knowing that others, too, have faced these struggles and have triumphed. It was this idea of fellowship, of community that he intended to share with the audience when he wrote the moving poem, I'll Walk with You. He wanted to have one generation speak to the next and collectively continue a conversation of fifty years. Against a piano arrangement of Deep River by Samuel Coleridge Taylor - the acclaimed composer of Sierra Leonian Creole descent, who was once hailed the "Black Mahler" but is ironically, almost all but forgotten here in the UK - this poem continues the work and momentum of the last half decade.
Here is it, published for the first time ever, and as spoken at the National Theatre on on Sunday 21st July 2013.
You have done the state some service and we know it.
You walked from off the whispering sands
Held hands with familiar strangers
Excited by the dangers
That lay in the land of kings and queens.
A place you'd heard about. Read about.
Saluted and sung to.
And as you sailed or flew England was the young dream you clung to.
You left behind sisters and singing grans, children,
Warning fathers and silent mothers who's only words were to God-
Take care of my child Lord. Don't let them hurt my child.
And as you arrived in London
Now with no sand beneath your feet.
No road, now street.
Perhaps another Black face smiled and said-
Come, I'll walk with you.
It takes a special heart to set foot in lands untrod.
Like a bird who's soul knows the way but who's eyes yet do not.
What waits there? What will I find?
Will I be equipped to free myself from the pitfalls and snares that may lay ahead?
With Gods Amazing Grace I believe I will.
So as you made your way down Finsbury Park, up Notting Hill
You thought you heard Jesus whisper-
I'll walk with you.
Every man in his time has roots to sew
As every woman has flowers she must grow,
That colour and scent the world. They dance, they blow.
Even the Poinsettia will grow in snow.
The first time you saw snow. O Lord.
Like icy sand
And you ran outside to see with your hand
And others said- I'll walk with you.
England had questions for you-
"Can I touch your hair?"
"Can you get a sun tan?"
"Do you have to wash your hair?"
"Why aren't the bottoms of your feet black too?
You wrote Home to tell your stories to the veranda.
"Sister Such and Such dead!?"
But you didn't tell of the looks you got.
About being called wog outside the paper shop.
Or about the jokes grinning men made on the box.
Those were stories only understood if you walked these snowy neighbourhoods.
But even through that, even when the skinhead spat, every Black smile that nodded along the pavement seemed silently to say-
Keep cool man, I'll walk with you.
To every storm there is a spring.
This land may sting
But so can it sing
When the trees blush green
And the gardens awake
In England every man, if he chooses is born with a handshake.
So in time the Greek, the Indian, the Turk, the Chinese, the Jew
Open their ears to your story too.
For every woman and man at first and finally is a Story.
See you'd come clutching a dream wrapped up in the arms of your heart like a child.
You had a voice in your head and the voice was a story
Saying- Tell me. Share me. Show me.
A million songs like grains of sand
Flakes of snow.
Waiting to be seen to be believed.
Tell me. Share me. Show me. Grow me.
Stories the old people have told for a thousand thousand.
Stories and characters brought alive to the sound of the sea.
To the kisses of palm trees, under the gaze of the going sun.
No, you did not come alone.
You are story tellers and your stories walk with you.
Jesus and his disciples told stories.
Stories are what we sing to a child.
To sooth and salve
To comfort and clothe
No army is stronger than a story.
Did we not grow being told by our teacher-
"Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me?"
Names can hurt. Words can hurt.
More than any blow.
For words are stronger than stones.
Sharper than thorns
Hotter than suns
Wilder than weeds
Words can crack your heart or save your soul.
"In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God."
Words may even dare to have power over the senses,
Rice And Peas...
So before I was a pickney at the table you were telling stories
Wherever you could.
In the theatre, the pub, the party, the school, the street
The church hall, the Albert Hall, the tv screen
The village green.
You enchanted us.
Perhaps you didn't know it but you came into our home
And when you were there you were surely much loved guests
So we said, we'll walk with you.
You made us smile so we'll walk with you.
You made us laugh so if we may we'll go along with you.
You answered Shakespeare, held a mirror up to nature.
Protected your stature.
Through Enoch through Thatcher,
Showed us ourselves.
You plaited our hair and shaped our flat tops.
We wanted to be as cool as Lenny Henry. As beautiful as Carmen Munroe.
Everyone in the playground liked you. And because they liked you they liked me, Or was it the other way round?
To behold faces looking back that were not stretched with suspicion nor smiling with hypocrisy.
To my child's eye you looked like my uncle, my big fat aunty, my mothers dear friend.
So I wanted to skip along with you.
Then as long as you could sing and share stories you were home.
From you I learned that home is wherever ones voice can soar.
In song, in story, in grief, in fury.
That if you have a song you must sing it.
At the top of your voice.
Unknown or knowing you raised us up.
You walked through Albert Square and Sloan Square.
We watched you walk.
You did not limp, nor strut, nor bow your head.
We saw you walk, through the barbers shop
Through the hospital ward, through the Bill
We saw you give Alf Garnet and Mr Rigsby as got as they gave.
Opportunity knocked and you walked in.
We saw you walk.
You walked the News at Ten.
Walked through the watching eyes of the BBC
Through the swinging doors of the NT
You did not shuffle, nor shrug any chip on anyone's shoulders,
As a river walks to the sea.
My people walk.
Walked in, took your seat and said- Good morning.
And because of you I felt the sun. I felt warm,
And I said to myself I'll walk with you.
You let me walk with you.
But time was when the theatre lowered its curtain to you.
Why cant we play Othello?
Why must that actor black his face?
It took a voice to demand that question. In this place.
And though the theatre shut its doors to you for seven long years
You worked and provided and taught and thought and fought
All the while with a story in your hand and a voice in your heart.
And you walk still, in the stretched out summer,
Through the season of good will.
With Words at your lips
Rolling like salt waves
Words that leap like flying fish from the deep
Words that fall like rain from the tropical blue
Words that bust like a drum
Like a cutlass on cane
Words that sear like a ball lickin' wickets
Slip like rum.
Mother used to say You've got to be twice as good.
Well you were twice as good.
Because you were first.
To be the first!
To let loose and to take with you a song. A word. A dance. A step.
So to this endeavour I must say thank you.
Just as the only true reply to the waking sun must be Thankyou
And just as when it rises in the sky.
And takes its sweet time passing by, like an old church lady
So that the whole world can see and pay respect,
So the children and the trees must say Thank you.
The water and the vagabond say Thank you.
The day and the dawn must say Thank you.
Then, we cannot help but walk along also.
I am a child of the Earth, full of uncertainty and hatching hopes
Yet as I pass through London and Leeds, through Liverpool, Birmingham, Newcastle, Manchester, Sheffield and Durham and Cambridge,
My eyes drop to the pavement and I see footprints. They are yours
I recognize them because they look like mine
And I am grateful
I am happy
And I know what I must do
So if I may ill walk with you. Ill walk with you
I'll be glad enough to walk with you
Mustapha Matura ill walk with you
Oscar James I'll walk with you
Yvonne Brewster I'll walk with you
Alfred Fagon I walk with you
Mona Hammond may I walk with you?
Jeffrey Kissoon I'll walk with you
Carmen Monroe I will walk with you
Errol John I'll walk with you
Wole Soyinka I'll walk with you
Rudolf Walker I'll walk with you
Don Warrington I'll walk with you
Edric Connor I'll walk with you
Cleo Sylvestre I'll walk with you
Anton Phillips I'll walk with you
T Bone Wilson I will walk with you
Nina Baden Semper I'll walk with you
Stephan Kalipha I'll walk with you
Derek Griffith I'll walk with you
Norman Beaton I'll walk with you.
The ten actors who spoke this piece were Noma Dumezweni, Jimmy Akingbola, Ruth Negga, Tanya Moodie, O-T Fagbenle, Chipo Chung, Kobna Holdbrook Smith, Jenny Jules, Paul J Medford, and Clint Dyer.
* CORRECTION: I'd like to correct an error in a previous article in which I referred to Terera singing "Make Them Hear You" from Rag Time, the musical. Rag Time was based on a book by E.L. Doctorow published in 1975. The musical however first premiered in Toronto in 1986 and opened in the West End in 2003.