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Lenny Henry's ‘August in England’ reminds us that black British history is British history

There are some names that you learn through your parents. Marvin Gaye, Luther Vandross, Diana Ross. In our household, through my father, I was introduced to Lenny Henry and his centrality to British TV in the 1980s. Lenny Henry’s theatrical debut, August in England delivers on this reputation as one of the most influential Black British performers exploring his roots as a Caribbean immigrant growing up in the midlands. The play - showing at the Bush Theatre until June 10th - prepares you before Henry appears on stage. The bar area and hallways have a reggae playlist on repeat that only true fans - or Black British people over a certain age - will recognise and know the words to. There is an ominous and exciting disclaimer poster as you enter the theatre that you may be offered an alcoholic drink during the performance - rum no doubt.

August in England begins with joviality as Lenny Henry saunters on stage dancing along to Damian Marley’s Welcome to Jamrock. He is charismatic and patient as clapping audiences settle to the reality that they have 90 minutes - without interval - with one of the most recognisable faces in Britain. The performance wastes no time and through the (assumedly) semi-autobiographical character of August Henderson, Henry begins to describe the journey from Jamaica to Peckham and finally, to West Bromwich. As a household name, Henry is no stranger to making the kinds of jokes and digs that the audience - most of whom appear middle aged or over - can laugh along to. However, it is clear that there is a layer of trauma and pain from growing up in the Midlands in 1980 where the refrain ‘Keep Britain White’ and violent attacks on young Black boys and girls were far too common.

Humour is the coping mechanism for Henry to unbundle his experience as a Black man in Britain. He describes his parents’ strained marriage as one that was as miserable as “Nigel Farage at the Notting Hill carnival”. The audience laughs but there is still the reminder of the violent, racial tension that existed in a not so distant Britain. The set is a living room with maroon worn-out sofas, a vinyl record player and hanging portraits that allow for the performance to play out as a hybrid of stand-up, physical theatre and confessional soliloquy. Henry expertly demonstrates through dance and impersonation how August navigates making a place for himself in a Britain that is determined to separate itself from its imperial past and legacy of slavery, of which Jamaica was a core part of. August maintains a lighthearted air when telling stories of his wife, children and career but is sometimes interrupted by a disruptive noise and the flashing of what appears to be him sitting in an interrogation room projected on a screen behind him. Audiences can guess that the ending is near and does not appear to hold much promise.

August holds the audience’s attention with sombre reflections on life blended in with playful commentary as Britain continues to change. His children grow up, he faces loss, endures grief and heals. A natural progression in life. Just as the play appears to have the opportunity to wrap up, he begins to receive letters regarding his immigration status. The UK state sees his presence in the country as illegal. Henry explores this offensive against Caribbean communities that built the country’s nascent institutions in post-war Britain with total physical embodiment. His voice wavers, his tall frame slants and the other characters he impersonates express their frustration and anger through his shaking body. Most people my age may not have been witness to the contribution that Caribbean communities had on British society at the time, but its effects linger still today. From Notting Hill Carnival remaining one of the biggest events in the UK to the adaptation of Caribbean patois in language, the influence is undeniable.

Audiences, both younger and older, may have benefitted from more historical context on the Caribbean as a part of the British empire. In the opening dialogue August calls out to the audience how Jamaica was split into three counties: Cornwall, Middlesex and Surrey. Moving from one part of the empire to the metropole itself was a migration that many from different corners such as British India, British East Africa and other British prefixed localities made, however this may not be clear if you did not pay much attention in history class. In 1948, The British Nationality Act defined British nationality for both Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies (CUKC). Despite this, some of August’s last words are in the form of a heart-wrenching cry, “why can’t you see me?” At the heart of it, the play functions as an archive for the invisible. A call for acknowledgement by a state that created identities as quickly as it erased them.

The performance ends how we knew it would: the heartless Windrush Scandal that forced a generation of British-Caribbeans to prove their existence to a country that they helped build and rooted themselves in. August walks off stage while a series of video interviews serve as a powerful conclusion that allows us to move from the thespian world to the real world. One testimony sees a woman in near tears detailing how she feels both England and Barbados are not her home - that her only home is heaven. The videos are a way of Henry saying ‘if you don’t believe me, hear it for yourself’. From the charming humour that he began with to the sombre note he ends on, Lenny Henry shows that he is a custodian of British entertainment. He also reminds us that Black British history is an undeniable part of British history. It would benefit us all, whether we paid attention in history class or not, to be reminded of the trajectory of a community that has endured betrayal and contributed immeasurably to modern society.


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