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TRCH David Suchet

Shebeen: A Tale of St Ann's in the Fifties

9 June 18 words: Bea Udeh
illustrations: Gemma Leggett

Awarded the Alfred Fagon Award for Best New Play in 2017, Shebeen – written by local bloke Mufaro Makubika, and directed by Matthew Xia aka Dj Excalibah – has its world premiere at Nottingham Playhouse this month. With the play set against the backdrop of St Ann’s in the fifties, we delve into the shebeens and race-riots of 1958, the relationships between them, and the stories being told today in our city...

You may be surprised to learn that the origins of a shebeen is in Irish culture; an illegal, all-night drinking den with dancing and gambling. It also has a global reach as far flung as South Africa and the Caribbean. Panya Banjoko, Nottingham Black Archive founder and curator explains: “When people came from African countries and the Caribbean islands to England, one of the places they resided was St Ann’s. They were living back-to-back, practically on top of each other.’’

As Caribbeans settled into St Ann’s, the setting up of shebeens was led mainly by the Jamaican community. Shebeens were a place to come together, drink and be yourself. David Beckett records in A Centenary History of Nottingham that shebeens existed because a colour bar meant that alcohol licences were not granted to this community.

Sharing her thoughts on the impact that riots have on a community, especially one stemming from racial tensions, Panya continues segueing Nottingham’s history focussing on the riots. “The 1958 riots were about race and relationships. The riots of the eighties were about the lack of opportunities and resources such as housing, employment and the ‘Stop & Search’ campaign by the police. The 2011 riots, a year ahead of London 2012 Olympics, stemmed from the Mark Duggan incident, thus was a response to injustice.”

Sonia Davies is Nottingham-born and a sessional lecturer in Black Studies at Birmingham City University.  “I can remember my dad talking about the 1958 riots,” she says. “He said that it wasn’t a riot in the immediate sense of the word, it was more like gangs of white men beating on black men.”

Sonia, Panya and Lisa McKenzie provide separate accounts of how the riots – occuring over three consecutive Saturdays in the late August and early September of 1958 – came to place Nottingham on a historical map. We know, from written records and memories passed down by elders, that on Saturday 23 August two white Teddy boys got into a physical altercation with two Jamaican men out with their white girlfriends. The altercation exploded out of St Ann’s Inn pub and onto Wells Road, and quickly grew into a mass of 1,000 people fighting each other and damaging property.

Derbyshire-born Lisa McKenzie places much importance on the stories of the working classes and how ownership of the voice of these stories is represented in the historical context. One of her books, Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain, published in 2015, is about St Ann’s from the sixties to 2010, and provides a detailed account of how the working classes shaped the communities in the area. Lisa grew up spending the majority of her life living in St Ann’s, meeting her then husband and raising their child.

“In 1958, there was a shop. Only one shop. And you had to go to the shop,” Lisa continues. “If you had a disagreement with someone and you bumped into them in the shop and had a fight, the next day you had to go back to this same shop.  You couldn’t sustain having a fight every time, so you had to find a way to mend relationships and get on.’’

“This is what I think happened with the 1958 riots. The black working class had nowhere else to go and the white working class had nowhere else to go, so they had to look at each other and make the choice to build relationships with each other. And now, decades later, there are lots of mixed-race children, like mine, who come from the best, and are the best.”

Nottingham-based writer, Mufaro Makubika, has written a play about a fictional moment in an actual days-past  St Ann’s, against the backdrop of a shebeen. “I wanted to write a play about a specific people in a specific place at a specific time, which turned out to be St Ann’s, its Caribbean community, and their history. I wanted to write a play about a home and ambition, and I wanted to write about the people who’ve called it home and still do to this day. This was the Windrush generation questioning their lives, value, and aspirations against the hostility of the society that had invited them to come to Britain. 1958 allowed them to explore their story through the prism of the ‘race riots’ and I’d never heard that story.”

Mufara began his journey about five or six years ago, by researching how St Ann’s became an estate with the support of Nottingham Black Archive, and other key individuals. It soon became apparent to Panya that some wanted to share their St Ann’s histories, reflecting moments which were integral to the 1958 race riots in St Ann’s.

“We spoke to black and white members of the community who had a connection with St Ann’s. They told us how people lived and what they did for entertainment, like the shebeens,” says Panya. “The white men were not happy that the black men were dating their white women. The black men said that there were not many black women at the time. The black women said that they were around, but they were not out at the all-night parties; they were either at home or they went to church. I could especially feel the tension from some of the older black women as they were sharing their stories.”

For Mufaro, the research was a humbling experience: “It was a real privilege and honour to listen to their experiences. I felt like a child listening to them – a little bit like oral history – but these stories were real. I also felt a need for their accounts to be respected and told. Shebeen is also set among the Caribbean community and the wider community of St Ann’s. I have African heritage, so I was very wary of appropriating their experience; people’s history rightly has great importance to them.”

In later decades, a shebeen became known as a “blues party”.  If there’s a modern-day equivalent of a shebeen, what makes its legacy relevant to the current and next generation? With the current news headlines of violent attacks on the streets, are people bold enough to exercise their rights and ability to attend social meet-ups in niche Nottingham spaces? “I wasn’t around during the time of the shebeens of the fifties,” proclaims Sonia. “I did go to blues parties in the eighties, though. These were places where we could be a community. We got together, could let our hair down, share pleasantries and dance. This is where community was formed. We don’t really have these opportunities now; to just be, to have a community.”

Lisa disagrees and believes that even though shebeens do not exist in the same way, communities do exist. She is on the edge of evangelising as she speaks: “Nobody today says why shebeens are important to young working-class black and white kids. We survived things that we as people shouldn’t have survived. My child has a mother whose grandparents and parents went down the mines. My child has a father that comes from a line of kings and queens, whose family survived slavery and ended up in Nottingham. There’s nothing wrong with wanting what we have in the communities of St Ann’s. What we’ve got in Nottingham is worth standing for.

“With the shebeens and blues, you learned how to behave yourself around alcohol. And we’ve let that go. Now, they’re binging at eighteen and nobody is watching. The saddest thing for me to see in Nottingham, is a wall on the site of the old Westminster pub, near the police station in St Ann’s. Go there now and you’ll see people sitting on that wall, drinking. There are no more shebeens, lock-ins or pubs. That’s about the police not giving licenses, because they think that the people ‘there’ can’t handle it.”

For Mufaro, his frankness is clear: “A shebeen is about companionship and relating. Yes, there is partying, but ultimately it’s about people trying to commune. I think that’s very important to many current communities in Nottingham.”

In the production of Shebeen, George and Pearl (played by Karl Collins and Martina Laird) are the central characters holding a shebeen to try to bring relief from the summer heat, from social oppression and from their relationships. Mufaro explains: “Every character I try to write is a challenge. I really had to find who Pearl and George were as people and what they wanted from their world and beyond it. I think if I can find them as human beings, then I’m on the right track. There are always limitations to what I can write, but this is where our brilliant cast come into play, to bring these characters to life which previously only existed on page.”

But what was Mufaro’s inspiration for the play? “I knew the world. It’s a world full of life, which makes it inherently dramatic,” he says, keen to point out that he’s no expert on Nottingham’s working-class culture. “I wouldn’t want to mislead anyone on that,” Mufaro continues. “The characters in the play are all working class – either immigrants or from the local community – but the play’s themes, like having dreams, apply to everyone. I hope it appeals to working-class Nottingham as well as the wider community.”

Lisa knows all about working-class communities, renowned for her PhD analysis, which included Rice ’n ’peas ’n ’chicken and other white working class traditions. While Lisa’s activism was previously based in supporting white working-class women living in St Ann’s raising children who are of mixed Caribbean and white-British heritage, she now supports the Bengali community, and a melting pot of other communities, in Tower Hamlets, an area in London moving towards gentrification. She’s pleased that St Ann’s is holding on to its community values, but notes: “I live in London now and I can see how these young, working-class children don’t know about the systematic destruction of their community.”

“Outside of London, Nottingham has one of the highest mixed-race populations,” Panya states. “And if you’re looking at an area in Nottingham that has the highest mixed-race population, then it’s in areas like St Ann’s. The riots didn’t do anything to stop that mixing of people building relationships.”  

This play, which brings relationships and communities under hot scrutiny, is to be staged in Nottingham at the end of spring. Even though he might have been shy at the first day of rehearsals, Mufaro thoroughly enjoyed the creative process. Working with artistic director Matthew Xia has caused much excitement. “I’ve had the chance to hang out with Matthew in the lead-up to rehearsals. He’s always sharing his latest discoveries into the world of the play; be it music or sharing images from the show’s designer Grace Smart. It’s always hard to see what a production will become, but at the minute Matthew and I are having a good time putting it together.”

Many versions of shebeens still exist all over the world and have evolved very little, so which part of the world would Mufaro most like to share his production? “The rest of country and beyond,” he says. “The play was written in Nottingham for Nottingham. I couldn’t have wished for any more. The play has already exceeded my expectations; everything else is a bonus.”

Museumand: The National Caribbean Heritage Museum will be hosting a day of free events in Nottingham Playhouse’s Ustinov Room on Monday 4 June. From 12pm, there’s the chance to share stories, photos, and memorabilia from 1948 - 1988, and from 6.15pm, there’s a talk and discussion with Matthew Makubika and Museumand Director Catherine Ross.

Shebeen shows at Nottingham Playhouse from Friday 1 – Saturday 16 June 2018.

Shebeen at Nottingham Playhouse

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