Caryl Phillips’ Strange Fruit Preface: “My generation had become even more vocal and uncompromising”
Caryl Phillips, writer of Strange Fruit, describes the context of his debut play in the Preface to the playtext published by Oberon Books. It’s available from our online book shop.
I wrote ‘Strange Fruit’ during the autumn of 1979. I had graduated from university in June of the same year with a desire to write, but this was long before the recent proliferation of Creative Writing classes and graduate courses. Therefore, the path to becoming a writer was very unclear but, as far as I could make out, it seemed to involve avoiding the pitfall of taking an actual job and instead hustling together some kind of piecemeal income doing bits of freelance reviewing, or writing short articles, plus, in my case, signing on the dole. I therefore passed the autumn of 1979 in a cramped flat in Edinburgh where, when not struggling to earn some money, I started to teach myself to type.
Jonathan Ajayi and Tok Stephen as brothers Errol and Alvin in Strange Fruit at the Bush Theatre © Helen Murray
The three years that I had spent at university (1976-1979) were prefaced by the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival riots, and the rise of an impatient militancy among my generation, a restlessness that was given impetus by the triumphant tour of the West Indies cricket team during that long, hot, summer. As a result, I went to off to study as a resolute and focused eighteen year old. Three years later, my generation had become even more vocal and uncompromising in their determination not to become marginalized and ignored by British society in the manner which they felt had been visited upon their parent’s generation. The twenty-one year old young man who stepped away from university in 1979 had the soundtrack of Linton Kwesi Johnson’s ‘Dread Beat n’Blood’ in his head, and a definite understanding that the election of Mrs Thatcher in June 1979 meant that battle lines were about to be drawn for many people in British society, including coal miners, the gay community and, of course, the Black and Asian population. I retreated to Edinburgh and began to write.
“Forty years later, I have now re-read the play and come to the not entirely surprising conclusion that some things never change.”
I secretly harboured the ambition of one day writing a novel, but this seemed such a far-off and somewhat fanciful idea. In the meantime, because I felt that I did have things to say, and because I had directed plays as a student and understood a little about the grammar of dramatic writing, I turned to the theatre. I did so in the hope that the subject-matter that felt so urgent to me might somehow be expressed on the stage.
Caryl Phillips at Strange Fruit rehearsals at the Bush Theatre © Helen Murray
Forty years later, I have now re-read the play; I have also refocused my gaze on twenty-first century Britain and come to the not entirely surprising conclusion that some things never change. First, parents and children are always going to live with the danger of becoming the victims of hurtful misunderstandings born of shame and fear. We, the children, and we, the parents, will habitually offer each other silence in place of dialogue and honesty. It is often difficult to talk, but such reticence can lead to distrust and confusion which, if not properly arrested, can quickly atrophy into despair. Second, Britain’s ‘betrayal’ of those citizens of the empire who arrived with a desire to contribute in the post-war years continues to this day. But more than this – it is not just black and brown people who feel demeaned and humiliated by the country; Britain’s recent decision to leave the European Economic Community has left many, of all ethnic, racial and religious, backgrounds, feeling bemused, angry and suddenly invisible in a country they considered to be home.
Rakie Ayola and Debra Michaels in Strange Fruit at the Bush Theatre © Helen Murray
A writer writes because he or she has something to say. In my own case, I persevere because my subject-matter – that unpredictable reciprocity of human strength and weakness (what William Faulkner called ‘the human heart in conflict with itself’) – continues to preoccupy me; and I also press on because I continue to believe that I still have something to say about the socio-political world which can often intrude with devastating speed and forcefully shatter the emotional fragility that is at the centre of our being. It is not for me to say what the play is about, but on re-reading it I am humbled to discover five courageous people who are striving very hard, in their own ways, to survive. I respect each and every one of them.
Strange Fruit written by Caryl Phillips and directed by Nancy Medina is playing at the Bush Theatre 12 Jun- 27 Jul 2019. Find out more and book Strange Fruit here.
This is the introduction from the published text of Strange Fruit by Caryl Phillips, reproduced with permission of the publisher Oberon and the writer. The playtext can be purchased at the Bush Theatre and from Oberon. Please note this preface is copyrighted by Caryl Phillips and cannot be reproduced.