Errol John

(c) BBC. Picture shows - Errol John, the West Indian actor and author, who is heard in many BBC drama productions. He will play the leading role in his own play 'Small Island Moon', which will be prsented in the BBC Third World Programme on Tuesday 27th May 1958.
© BBC

Biography

Errol John, actor, playwright and director, wrote the award-winning Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, a breakthrough work for Black and Caribbean literature in Britain.

John was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad in 1924, where after leaving school he began a career as a journalist and artist. Soon, however, John had dreams of acting and co-founded the Whitehall Players theatre group, for whom he also began to write plays.

John’s acting career and move to London

After the war, John came to London to pursue his acting career. He found work in the theatre and then began to pick up minor roles in television and film, such as The Heart of the Matter (1953), Simba (1955) and Cry, the Beloved Country (1958). John’s major career breakthrough came with the BBC’s A Man from the Sun (1956), which led to him being cast in the title role in Othello at the Old Vic Theatre in 1962. Frustrated by the lack of roles available for Black actors, he turned to playwriting.

Moon on a Rainbow Shawl and gaining recognition as a Black practitioner

In 1957, John’s play Moon on a Rainbow Shawl won him the Observer Award for Best New Playwright. After being adapted for radio in May 1958 as Small Island Moon, Moon on a Rainbow Shawl premiered at the Royal Court Theatre on 4 December 1958. As well as being one of the first plays by a Black Caribbean writer to be staged in Britain, this production was one of the first times that a largely Black cast, speaking a Caribbean dialect, were seen and heard on the British stage.

Since then, the play has been staged internationally in New York, Iceland, Hungary and Argentina, and revived numerous times in Britain. This has not been without controversy, however. Management at the Apollo Theatre – where the play was to be staged originally – failed to meet the cast at their first rehearsal and then decided that the play was unsuitable for a ‘typical’ West End audience. Moon on a Rainbow Shawl was only programmed at the Royal Court in 1958 due to a slot becoming vacant after another show was cancelled. And, before John’s premiere, the runners-up of the Observer Award both had their plays staged at the Royal Court. When Moon on a Rainbow Shawl was finally produced, it was presented in a stage described by Doris Lessing as ‘much too small for a play of such breadth’ and with a script that had been subjected to numerous rewrites. The experience led John to refuse revivals of his play in Britain unless he could direct it himself.

After an 18-year sanction, Moon on a Rainbow Shawl was directed by John at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1986. The production was a success and received positive reviews, which led to a revival two years later at the Almeida Theatre on the condition that John direct again. Instead, the Almeida chose Maya Angelou. Although it contributed to raising the play’s profile, this 1988 interpretation was criticised by John and some reviewers as nostalgic and overly sentimental. Revivals of John’s play have continued to be staged in Britain, with productions in 2003, 2012 and 2014 that have contributed to firmly cementing its reputation as a classic post-war Caribbean drama.

Later life and career

Moon on a Rainbow Shawl won John a Guggenheim fellowship and he continued to write as well as act. His other plays include The Tout (1966) and Force Majeure, The Dispossessed, Hasta Luego: Three Screenplays (1967). For television he wrote Teleclub (1954) and Dawn (1963), and wrote and starred in episodes for the BBC series First Night (1963) and The Wednesday Play (1969).

Though John achieved some recognition during his career, he became increasingly frustrated with the limitations he experienced in an arts climate that was failing to create equal opportunities for Black practitioners.

John died in July 1988 in his home borough of Camden, London, at the age of 63. He was posthumously awarded the Trinidad & Tobago Chaconia Medal for Drama in 1988.

Further reading

Further information about the life of Errol John can be found here via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Related articles

Migration stories in Errol John’s Moon on a Rainbow Shawl

Article by:
Lynette Goddard
Themes:
Gender and sexuality, Exploring identity, Capturing and creating the modern, 20th-century theatre

Set in Trinidad, Moon on a Rainbow Shawl centres on a group of characters contemplating migration or other ways of leaving their shared tenement yard. Lynette Goddard examines the play’s setting, offstage spaces and the contrasting ambitions and perspectives of men and women.

Black British theatre: 1950–1979

Article by:
Natasha Bonnelame
Theme:
Authors, artists and activists

Postwar migration to Britain from Africa and the Caribbean led to the development of black British theatre in the 1950s. Natasha Bonnelame introduces several of the most important black playwrights of the period, including Errol John and Wole Soyinka and describes the contexts in which their plays were staged.

Black British theatre: 1950–1979

Article by:
Natasha Bonnelame
Themes:
Theatre practitioners and genres, 20th-century theatre, Exploring identity

Postwar migration to Britain from Africa and the Caribbean led to the development of black British theatre in the 1950s. Natasha Bonnelame introduces several of the most important black playwrights of the period, including Errol John and Wole Soyinka and describes the contexts in which their plays were staged.

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