Being black is a factor which automatically sets you apart from the majority of society. Whether British or American, French or Spanish, wherever you come from, the numbers don’t lie: It’s harder for you in life if you’re black. I could provide statistics, but we’d be here all day and I only have so many words. Anyway, with that degree of hardship there is struggle, with struggle there is story, and with story, there is always going to be theatre. Henry Box Brown and Freeman both examine blackness and where in history those ideas come from, one with an eye to the past, and the other an eye to the present. Unique to both is that they come from black-led casts and companies, something that is rare for modern theatre and especially rare at the Fringe. And both promise to be a great, diverse, entertaining way to spend an afternoon.
The two shows actually start in a relatively similar place – a black man seeking to free himself. Both follow their extremely different titular characters: William Freeman, notorious for being the first man to plead insanity in American trial, and Henry Box Brown, famous for escaping bondage in a shipping crate and becoming a multitalented artist and prominent abolitionist in the process. The outlook of their shows is different as well, as Freeman looks to the past to inform much of the present discussion of not only race but of the Mental Health of prisoners in Modern Britain. Henry Box Brown seeks, instead, to fill a gap in the American Musical Tapestry: A major musical starring a black man. The creators describe it as “Les Miserables set in the American South,” and as I’m writing this I struggle to find another musical that fits in this mold. Apart from Hamilton, which though portrayed by actors of color is a story about a white man, and The Color Purple, most historical musicals don’t even dabble with Black History and black characters are often relegated to sidekicks or minor roles. Henry Box Brown is nothing like that- its hero is portrayed as Heroic, as a man who escaped bondage, and whose tragic experiences shape him positively. That plus a soundscape built on R&B, negro spirituals and gospel make for a show that’s bound to send people home happy and hopeful.
But if you’d rather be sent home thoughtful rather than happy and don’t want to lie in the past, the present is always here for you. Freeman is deeply about a contemporary issue: the link between systemic racism and mental health. In 2016, 120 self inflicted deaths were reported across UK prisons, with around 37% of the prison population reported major mental health issues. This is compared with only a fraction of that population being treated by the NHS, a staggeringly low statistic. Given people of colour make up a disproportionately large percentage of the prison population, they are deeply affected by this issue. Freeman starts in the past, with the titular character being the first American to plead the insanity defense. From there it moves onto a wide variety of characters, some of whom you may recognise: David Oluwale, Sarah Reed, Sandra Bland, Daniel M’naghten and Michael Bailey. The director, Corey Campbell said that “as an individual who has been a victim of racial profiling, wrongfully accused by the justice system, with friends and family who have suffered from poor mental health, and a member of the black community myself, the statistics and information I’ve researched are both relevant and frightening. To think that William Freeman’s story from as far back as the 1800s can still be an example to us today shows that we are still in dangerous waters.”
Both of these plays, as dark as they may get, have a kernel of light at the core of them, which is the representation not only of actors but also of production team members. Strictly Arts is a black-led team, the first to receive the Charlie Hartill Special Reserve Fund, while the team behind Henry Box Brown is made up of a massive tapestry of diversity: It's written by an Iranian woman of Baha’i faith, directed by a Tony Award-Winning ancestor of an escaped slave, musically directed by a Canadian Oscar nominee and is performed by a cast made of every race, gender and creed you could possibly imagine. In a theatrical landscape where we’re beginning to reexamine the relationship between race, theatre, and the people who make it, the ability for these shows to find success at the Fringe is a strong benchmark for what may be successful in Edinburgh in the future. These companies make their vision on what they believe makes modern theatre clear – It’s one that considers the issues of race, class, and history facing us today, and refuses to bow down to traditional notions of what the role of any individual is within the industry. These are things that emblematise what the Fringe was built for – to give voice to those who would not be given them in the world of traditional theatre. Henry Box Brown and Freeman both scream to ensure that voice can be heard.