“I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it’s for or against.” Malcolm X.
MARSHALL STREET was first performed at Thimblemill Library, Smethwick on Thursday 26th September 2019 with the following cast.
Harbhajan Gurpreet Boparai
Bernice Criscentia Spence
Ronnie Jason Adam
Gladys Julie Baker
News v/o Edward Morris
Director Jon Morris
Production Manager Rachael Magson
Designer Abigail King
Sound Designer Jack Baggott
Marketing Designer Chris Cooper
Photographer Simon Hadley
Creative Mentor Elizabeth Freestone
Lucky Mascot Lorelai Magson
MARSHALL STREET was generously Lottery funded by Arts Council England and made possible with the support of Black Country Touring, Birmingham Hippodrome, The Old Joint Stock Theatre, Arena Theatre Wolverhampton and CAP Centre Smethwick.
Through four interwoven monologues MARSHALL STREET tells the story of Malcolm X’s controversial visit to Smethwick in the mid-1960s.
Smethwick, Staffordshire, United Kingdom.
21st February 1965 – the day of Malcolm X’s assassination.
NEWS 1: Smethwick, Staffordshire. Nine days ago, an unheralded and largely unwelcome guest arrived in this industrial town. Prior to his visit the quietly spoken man had been denied entry into France as it was felt that his presence there would cause civil unrest. For most of the morning of Friday the 12th of February the man evaded questions fired at him by the press. On being asked why he had come to Smethwick the man replied, “I was in Birmingham, Alabama the other day. This will give me a chance to see if Birmingham, England is any different.” Asked if he would be staying long, he smiled and said, “I shall probably be back in New York tomorrow.” Conservative MP for Smethwick, Peter Griffiths had, like the French, called for the man to be banned…
HARBHAJAN: I met him. I talked with him. I laughed with him. I had a brown ale with him – a half, not a pint. I shook his hand. Yes, I met him.
BERNICE: The night before that fine, tall, handsome man arrived in Smethwick, they put firecrackers through my letterbox again. It wasn’t the first time – it has been going on for years – and it hasn’t been the last. I suppose, what with all the fuss, they were just trying to remind me.
RONNIE: I’d never heard of him. Who had? Any road up, why would he want to come here? Smethwick? It’s a dive. No prospects. No jobs. No hope. Shithole. Go Harborne – it’s leafy there.
GLADYS: Oswald! Oswald! Oswald! Oswald! Oswald!
HARBHAJAN: I met him at The Blue Gates pub. He spent time with me. With many of us. Talking. Listening. Though I did most of the talking – as usual. A lot of the other guys don’t speak English so I do most of the talking most of the time. He was polite. Humble. I was in awe. I knew I was in the presence of greatness. Like that time when I met John Lennon.
BERNICE: Those firecrackers reminded me of when I first arrived in Smethwick. That was a cold night too. “Colder than a penguin’s arse,” as Earl says. I could see my own breath. The air was heavy. Smokey. Tasted of sulphur. Icy cold. I learnt about England in school – red buses and black cabs. Big Ben. Kings and queens and princes and princesses. The fabled mother country. The thing they don’t teach you? The perishing cold.
RONNIE: No, I’d never heard of him, that is, not until last year. Last year when there was that incident at school. That incident that saw me, much to my parents’ “disappointment,” get expelled. All’s to do lately is sit on me wall, listen to the tranny and watch shit go by. No, I’d never heard of him until then.
GLADYS: You haven’t seen my Oswald, have you? Mind, you can’t miss him – size of him. I’d hoped that he would have provided some sort of companionship during these difficult and uncertain times, but, like all males, he is very easily distracted. Oswald! Oswald!
HARBHAJAN: We talked. I talked. Mostly about me. Maybe all about me. He said to me, “I was asked today why I came to Smethwick – why did you come?” To meet you, sir, I replied. He smirked, politely, I think. He asked again, “why did you come to Smethwick?” I thought for a moment about my reply. That moment could’ve been an hour, a day. A lifetime. That moment stirred something within me.
BERNICE: My husband, Earl had sailed into Tilbury in ’48 – he was one of the first. He was here for six months until I was able to join him. We wrote to each other in the meantime. He’d talk about cricket and football. And warm beer. And pigeon fancying. And chimneys. And how much he missed me…and the bump. But never the perishing cold.
RONNIE: And, then, just over a week ago, finding out that he was coming here… Coming here to this shithole… There’s a saying ‘round here, “stay outta the oss road.” Stay out of trouble. Eh? Wisdom of my bloody elders. “Stay outta the oss road.” He didn’t stay outta the oss road. He walked right down the middle of it and I was going to be there.
GLADYS: He went missing on the day of that man’s visit too. I was watching all day from the bay for Oswald’s return. I do worry about him – when he doesn’t return for any length of time. I’d hoped that he would have provided some comfort during my convalescence – but no such luck. Back and forth, I was, all day – to the front step. In my condition. Up and down like a fiddler’s elbow. He didn’t come home that night – filthy stop-out. You really can’t miss him – well, you can, in the dark. Black. Black as the ace of spades. And huge. Huge and black. Filled out since I’ve had him. Fat lump. I never saw my life being shared with anyone…after my late husband. Oswald is a recent addition to my living arrangements – since the infestation.
NEWS 2: Four months ago, in the election of ’64, Tory candidate Griffiths, sensationally took the Smethwick seat in one of the biggest shocks in British political history. Since the end of the War thousands of immigrants from across the former British Empire have poured into the UK. Attracted to the plentiful jobs in factories and foundries, the immigrants – often single men – have ended up in grim, old industrial towns across the country. The traditionally Labour stronghold of Smethwick – to the West of Birmingham, in the appropriately named Black Country – is one such town. During his election campaign, Griffiths addressed the immigration fears of Smethwick’s white populous and clinched the seat from Labour with the slogan, “If you desire a coloured for a neighbour vote Labour. If you are already burdened with one vote Tory.”
RONNIE: On the morning of the day I got booted out of school the kids were in the yard chanting, “if you want a nigger for a neighbour vote Labour.” “If you want a nigger for a neighbour vote Labour.” It was October last year. Just before the election. The teachers did nothing. Said nothing. All the kids were chanting it. The white kids – obviously – the young uns and the old uns. The big uns and the little uns. The cool kids. The kids who you wouldn’t go near with the wrong end of a shitty stick. The Asian kids – the few there are. Even the black kids – the few there are – were chanting it – “if you want a nigger for a neighbour vote labour.” That was the day that they booted me out of school. That was the day I first heard the name, Malcolm X. My education, my school-life, my prospects ended that day because of Malcolm bloody X.
HARBHAJAN: History is unreliable. I have my version of events you will have yours. History is hollered by the loudest voices from the highest platforms. Though history, as my father taught me, can also be altered, embellished. Diluted to suit the sensitivities of the listener. Why was I in Smethwick? Kismet? Destiny? Fate? It was my destiny a few years ago to meet John Lennon. And the other Beatles – though John was definitely the coolest. Thimblemill Baths. I helped them with their kit. Gave them a light. Friendly, funny guys. I got their autographs – they signed a playbill for me. That night they played to a handful of people. A year later 73 million Americans watched them on the Ed Sullivan show. What was I saying about knowing when I was in the presence of greatness? Yes, I met him. I met Malcolm X. Not only did I meet Malcolm X, I only went and got his autograph too.
GLADYS: I’ve never been an animal person – I’ve never taken to them, and, for the most part, I expect they’ve never really taken to me. My late husband fancied pigeons, though I never classed them as animals. Vermin. Vermin with wings. Any animal that defecates where it dines is, in my book, vermin. If I were an animal person – which I’m not, really – then, given the choice, I would probably have chosen a dog. On account of their loyalty and companionship. Oswald was out of necessity rather than any emotional attachment.
BERNICE: Those firecrackers – the noise – the smell – the sudden skip of the heart – they reminded me. As I stepped off the train carriage at Rolfe Street, the day I arrived, Earl threw open his arms as every colour of firework cascaded in the sky. The air was cold – it hadn’t felt that cold when I’d arrived that morning at Liverpool Docks – and the train had been stuffy and warm. But that first bite of Smethwick air – like smoky crushed-ice – lays heavy on your chest. Or that might have been how hard Earl was squeezing me. In that moment I felt like a movie star. Or a princess. Those fireworks the night I arrived heralded my arrival. Like a beacon in the night. Smethwick was putting on a show to welcome me. To welcome me to my new home. But I was wrong.
NEWS 3: Griffiths took the constituency from Labour’s Patrick Gordon Walker. With strong support from local press, Griffiths placed emphasis on his native roots against the established figure of Walker. He attacked Walker for living in Hampstead and not understanding the effect of immigration on the town. Walker’s fall from favour went further with reports that he had sold his house in Smethwick to negroes; gone to the West Indies to recruit negroes for Smethwick industry; was planning on building two secret leper hospital in Smethwick, for negroes; his wife was a negro; his daughter had married a negro; and, that he, himself, was in fact a negro. Walker responded by accusing Griffiths of organising gangs of children to chant the now infamous slogan. On the slogan, Griffiths stated that he would not condemn anyone who said it – claiming “it’s exasperation not fascism.”
BERNICE: I arrived in Smethwick from Jamaica on the evening of the 5th of November. The 5th of November. I’m gazing with wonder at this beautiful portent being played out in the sky. Earl is struggling with my luggage as we head up the High Street home, to Marshall Street. I see children pulling and pushing carts and barrows carrying the sorry-looking effigies of men. Earl says to me, “later the children throw the effigies onto bonfires!” I stopped dead in my tracks. Where had I come to? Children running amok, burning and terrorising. Earl laughed. Boomed, like he does. Earl explained that it was bonfire night. It was a thing. A custom over here. People let off fireworks. Build fires and make like they’re executing people. He told me not to worry and it was a good thing – it gave the local children something to do. He said they call it Guy Fawkes’ night – it’s a British thing – and that is who the doomed-to-incineration effigy represents – Guy Fawkes. I asked Earl who Guy Fawkes was and what had he done so bad that had a nation want to remember him in such a way? Earl set my suitcases down to relive his grip and said, “apparently Guy Fawkes was the last man to enter parliament with any honourable intentions.”
RONNIE: Up until I got expelled, school was like riding a bike – a cinch. Except sometimes the bike was on fire. And the ground I was riding on was on fire. In fact, sometimes everything was on fire. I could’ve left a couple of years ago. When I was fourteen. I should’ve, really. Maybe got on one of the apprenticeships down the brewery or at one of the foundries. I dunno. I was crap at most things at school – couldn’t wait to leave. Don’t know why I stayed on? Mathematics – arithmetic and that, was ok. I’ve always been good with numbers -they’re my thing. I get numbers. Words can lie. Not numbers. Two plus two will always be four.
HARBHAJAN: My father gave me my spirit for adventure – he was a proud man. Father. Husband. Farmer. Soldier. No, he was more than a soldier – a warrior. When my siblings and I were younger father would relish recounting his war stories to us. He wasn’t your typical veteran. He wasn’t too stoic to entertain us with tales of heroism and gallantry. He wasn’t too guarded to reveal his mistakes and stupidity. He wasn’t so damaged that he hid from the war behind denial and silence. Father revelled in his tales of Mandalay. The enemy – the Japanese – were secreted in deep trenches. As his platoon came under intense machine-gun fire, father charged on. With every word he relived how he’d dispatched the enemy in not one, not two, but three trenches. Single-handedly. Under point-blank fire. With only his bayonet to defend himself. The same bayonet that father – according to him, with a twinkle in his eye – how shall I put it – that father deposited in his commanding officer’s rear-end following a dispute about cigarette rations. At the end of the war that same bayonet was father’s only possession as he swam the length of the Irrawaddy River home. I hope he washed the bayonet.
GLADYS: Now, as a general rule of thumb, if I want to be understood by a foreigner I shout. I don’t mean anything disrespectful by it. I do it to the elderly too. Again, nothing disrespectful. Just for clarity. And animals. Concise clarity. A slower pace helps too. Largo. Long and slow and clear and dignified. For clarity.
HARBHAJAN: Many from back home came here for opportunities. I did not. The empire reached out her hand to the colonies offering jobs. Jobs to rebuild. Jobs to bridge and unify. I did not need these opportunities. I had a good education back home. I studied hard. Worked hard. With a degree in engineering my career prospects at home were as good as anywhere. But my want for travel…my urge to explore new places and meet new people, to thrive and mete out the expectations that my education deserved…well, that was overwhelming.
BERNICE: We used to get firecrackers, hate mail, faeces, all sorts through the door when we first arrived on Marshall Street. It died down after time – once the novelty had worn off. Then, last year, in the lead up to the election, it escalated again. And then, last week, the night before Malcolm X’s visit, more reminders. Word had got around and the haters reminded us in the only language they speak. Firecrackers and burning crosses through our door. Hiding behind ignorance – anonymous. Despite the apathetic demeanour of some of the white people of Smethwick, the news that Malcolm X was coming to town really got under their skin. And they let people like me and my family know it.
RONNIE: Dad had really got an itch on his bollocks about something on the morning that was to be my last at school. He’d been listening to the radio at breakfast. Summat about rates of immigration. He was banging on about how Griffiths was definitely getting his vote in a couple of days. My dad?! And politics?! He was always too half-baked to care a toss about election day and politics and now, out of the blue, he’s a staunch Tory?! Be telling me next he schooled at fuckin’ Eton! Mom nodded, obediently. I said, seriously? You’re going to vote for him? He said, “son, you’re too young to understand.” As I grabbed my stuff for school I said, I don’t know who’s the biggest prick – that prick, or the pricks who are gonna vote for that prick. My dad belted me ’round the ear. It fucking hurt.
GLADYS: It seemed that the recent infestation was not exclusive to my home. I own another property on Marshall Street – just a little down the road. The tenants – some very pleasant Indian men – also informed me of their own unexpected visitors. My late husband always dealt with the tenants. These days it’s all down to me which is not easy in my current state of convalescence. I am no expert on the behavioural patterns of vermin. But I would safely conclude that our recent rat infestation is due to the gross stockpiling of waste by some residents in their yards. Filthy. I am not a woman who sits down in the face of adversity. My late husband always said that I was too amiable, too passive. Not so now. The problem had been identified. It had a name. Mine was to provide a solution. To quell the spread. Maude, from down the bingo knows a man. Ex-council. Pest control. Retired. So, clearly and concisely I said to the pleasant Indian men down the road, “I’ll get the rat man in!”
HARBHAJAN: My decision to leave India for a new life in England wasn’t easy. I stalled. I doubted. I talked myself around in circles – and believe me, I can talk. Unlike most I had every reason to stay and every reason not to leave. Father agreed. He listed a thousand reasons not to go – the bad food and the bad weather – and the…the nine-hundred-and-ninety-eight other reasons to do with the bad food and the bad weather… But my father gave me my spirit for adventure. He would tell us his war stories. He would create the pictures in our minds like the epics – Lawrence of Arabia and Ben Hur. He told of adventure and heroics. Yet he suppressed the truth. Not through guilt or shame. He lived and breathed while others died. Saw the very worst that humanity can be. He went through that for freedom. His stories, his folly, was yes, to save us from the horror, but also to save him. He said to me, “if I was your age with a lifetime ahead of me I would go.” I asked, what is this one good reason that outweighs a thousand others? He replied, “kiuki meh azaad eh”…“because I am free.”