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A Magazine for Sheffield

Dig Where You Stand: Blue Fire

In the third instalment of ‘Dig Where You Stand’, Otis Mensah releases his poem ‘Blue Fire’ and talks to Dr Alex Mason about the process and impact of producing this new work.

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The ‘Dig Where You Stand’ project, led by Désirée Reynolds, seeks to excavate untold stories of Sheffield’s past. As part of this project, Otis Mensah was commissioned to write a poem about any one of the historical figures emerging from Sheffield Archives.

The result is ‘Blue Fire’, which reimagines the life of Samuel Morgan Smith, an African-American Shakespearean actor who settled in Sheffield in the late-nineteenth century. Dr Alex Mason from the University of Sheffield interviewed Otis about the project.

AM: What was the experience of being in the archives like for you? What did you find valuable about it? What were the challenges?

OM: To be honest, I was initially dreading going into the archives. As someone who is dyslexic, I try to avoid situations where there are masses of information that I can’t inhale visually or audibly. However, I was very excited about the commission because it’s rare that you get to work on a project where there’s a perfect balance between thematic-focus and creative freedom.

Once I’d sat down with Désirée and she told me about the stories she had been pulling from the archive, I was deeply intrigued and the story of Samuel Morgan Smith spoke to me instantly. So then I went on to do some research, though not extensively. I didn’t want to exhaust it and risk knowing too much and stifling my imagination, but I wanted to know who Samuel Morgan Smith was and a little about his journey to and life in Sheffield.

I ended up learning about his family and the imminent death of his wife Mary upon moving to the UK. I wanted to imagine what it was like for him attempting to achieve the nearly impossible as an artist, and what that internal dialogue would feel like given all that he had experienced on his journey.

AM: What was it about Samuel Morgan Smith that immediately jumped out at you?

OM: I think the struggle. The artistic struggle and his need to survive as a living artist. The fact that he was leaving Philadelphia in the States to escape segregation, that he felt that he would have a better chance of performing in the UK. Or that he had reached an artistic peak in the States because of segregation. The difficult choice you have to make as an artist; to move.

Of course, there’s also a lack of choice because of his subjugation, but he had to make a choice as an artist and say: “Okay, if I want to practise my craft, I may have to leave”. And he did. He couldn’t have known too much about the UK or Sheffield. The fact he took that risk for his art, the lengths he went and journey he was willing to take—that’s what jumped out at me.

And then trying to understand the complexities he might have faced and thinking about myself through his eyes. Like is there a common denominator between his experiences and mine? Did he have those difficult conversations with family to justify his leaving? That navigation of relationships, hopes, dreams, societal expectations, family, and financial restrictions, whilst attempting to prioritise your art. I wanted to realise those common denominators between a Black artist living in the UK right now, navigating those complexities, and Samuel Morgan Smith all those years ago.

AM: What did Samuel do specifically? What was his art form?

OM: He performed Shakespearean tragedies. He was a tragedian. I believe that he performed in people’s houses, at special events and in theatres, before eventually becoming the manager of a theatre in Hull. What I found really interesting was that there was somebody called Ira Aldridge from an earlier time who also moved to London as an African American actor and made a career on London stages performing in Shakespearean plays. I had this idea that perhaps Samuel had somehow known of Ira, and maybe saw him as an example of success as a Black American actor in the UK and was encouraged to do the same.

In the poem, I put Samuel in a dreamscape dialogue with his father and with Ira talking about these complex and difficult decisions, regrets and consequences, both good and bad.


Otis Mensah

AM: Did engaging with the archives and Samuel’s story change your sense of Sheffield, Britain, or your own identity?

OM: Most definitely. We know that there were Black people and people of colour living in the UK in Victorian times. We know that, theoretically. But we’ve been conditioned to think that Black and Brown people didn’t contribute in an instrumental way, that they were not involved in the development of civilization, transportation, technology and the arts—we’re often robbed of that.

There’s always these gaps in our knowledge. We know the truth, but it doesn’t quite resonate on a deep level because we’re missing real life examples in the history books, in the education system. So the history can feel inaccessible.

With British history, white Britons have seen themselves represented. There’s of course still great deception there because they have not had the truth about their role in slavery, about their role in colonisation. But in terms of seeing yourself represented by history, they have had it. Like the Tudors are drilled into you. All these lavish, flamboyant stories. Even if there’s tragedy or greed present in the story, there’s someone that looks like you. It’s humanising.

So by Désirée making that very practical, creative and daring step to delve into the archive and say, 'Actually, I’m just going to go and find those stories,' knowing that there is a gap, it is truly life changing. Because now we can put a face, a life and a story to what we know to be fact. We can begin to take back stolen narratives. It’s truly empowering and revolutionary.

AM: Talking of Tudors, Désirée seems keen to ensure that this project is about everyday people. It’s not about kings and queens from around the world. It’s about everyday people and honouring their stories.

OM: Exactly. And to have an example of an everyday working class artist, a Black working class artist from the eighteenth century living in the North of England, that’s so beautiful and transforming to me.

AM: Where did the title of the poem, Blue Fire, come from?

OM: I did some research into old Victorian and Shakespearean terms used in live theatre. Blue Fire was a term that came from the performance of Shakespearean theatre in Victorian times. Of course, in those times they had limited special effects, but one special effect that was introduced was the use of fire on stage, a blue flame. The term Blue Fire was coined and because it was so impressive and mesmerising to audiences at the time, the term was further used as a metaphor for incredible, high-octane performances. So if Samuel Morgan Smith did an incredible performance of a role or scene, perhaps the audience would say “Samuel was Blue Fire tonight!” I loved that.

AM: Religious language can be seen throughout the poem. For instance, you talk about Samuel speaking from pulpits, being worshipped from pews. Can you expand a bit on this theme?

OM: I was thinking about Samuel’s experience of racism in the States and I wanted to put him in a position of power through his stage craft. So lines like “They build altars onto us!” I imagined Samuel explaining to his father how he felt empowered in his performances as an actor. Perhaps him knowing that he’s in control during his time on stage, imagining what that does to the power dynamic between Samuel as a Black performer and potentially white audiences. Does it dismantle that power dynamic on any level?

AM: I really like the line “That I might perform to escape my stake / and stretch out our name’. Looking at Désirée’s archival work, so many of the people she has found are nameless. If a name is a sign of individual identity, how do you characterise or humanise those who are nameless? Perhaps through the arts. Is this an idea you were engaging with?

OM: It’s that concept of critical fabulation, isn’t it? I’m so happy to have discovered that word through Désirée. To have the language to describe the need to, I wouldn’t say fill in the gap, I would say adorn the gap. Make it beautiful, populate it with life and humanity. Because we’re not just filling it in. Nothing of all the art that comes from Black people has ever been just filling in—but there has been a flourishing and I think the creativity that has spawned from this project is an example of that creative flourishing. And when you can actually experience your history tangibly, through the archives, but also through the imagination of artists taking back narrative with craft and creative license, it can be hugely transformative.

Blue Fire (for Samuel Morgan Smith)

My Father’s sighs orbit me
he’d call it the graduation of a slave
wrinkled with stress and perplexity
swooned and dizzied that I’d adopt a ghost
with so much holocaust in its head
clustered with rusted guilt bronzing its brow
some dead child of another eating at my womb and all its acres
that I’d squander freedom on these Dales
and sardine my whole ocean onto a pale peninsula
like pushing family into a breathless bilge
but a hungry and obscure death is no cleaner
damned like some village blacksmith
I know there’s no high ground treasured in these peaks
but pastures can feel greener still
a lush dew on my tongue that softens the prickled taste of hate some
to die penniless and alive than centless and dead
and the air carries my skin like less of a stain
I’m a panting steam train, Father
God will it that an engine like me keeps on running
even if off coal and illusion

they fear us like spiders, Father, that if we’re dead they’ll spare us our lives
but I’m too young to quit sleepcrawling up ceilings
spinning their heads in silk nests of prey
in rooms remorsed with laughter and blood shimmying ovation
through the assembly hall of hammer & string inside their grandest pianos
I am the one that erodes the wick in jesting glint and sweltering red
melting their waxyfaced suspense
these aren’t mere blusters of doom, Father, but poetry of blues
blue fire, how I put Curley Weaver into Othello
when I sing these songs on soapbox pulpit through courtyard and chamber
with a mouth full of croft yielding tragic prayer after tragic prayer
their pews, their applauds, they build altars unto us
that I might perform to escape my stake
and stretch out our name.

I saw Ira in a dream once
long before the blood of Marry tormented my mouthlike the aftertaste of war
he said it’s not a question of whether we belong here
but whether these isles can hold us
and to this day, I stumble across strands of her hair with my tongue
drunk staggering through the hollow night of my mouth
coloured with all this cry
how empty and droughty her follicles were
like God pickpocketed a grave then rained grief
his eyes like the back of a head, thick and expressionless
exclaiming the show is brief but the legacy… long
but her inanimate body has drawn curtains of hair
unveiling his bald scalpy celestial words
and now I see how I spent you frivolously on a dream
that you shook yourself dead in disapproval
so I’ll carry this prancing boy of nonsense alone
but how.

Authors notes
(dedicated to the artists, the excavators;
for Désirée Reynolds)

To all that lie awake
in between qualifiers of day becoming qualifiers of night
clutching chest tight to various instruments of innovation
of varying textures of Black
running backwards from forward-thinking erasure
permeating spineless fable-made gaps in historiless us
with fruit and more fruit than the archive can home
injecting dusk speckled shells of unknown
with morning and more morning still
like bovine pinnacle prod gilded with our non-binary past
jabbing beams of prodigal childhood into our hive body
once destitute from generations of barren ancestors
shoehorned onto scraggly beaches
ironed out of their matted terrains and knotty lineages to blonds of sand
this old genal of time like a fork with only two teeth
an entrance into slavery and exist into death
both landmines of the same lie
but truthfully behind each brick lies a map guiding us backwards to now
a memory book portal into real
populated with ballads of nuance and trumpet horns of technicoloured existences
of Pablo Fanque, of Samuel Morgan Smith, of Ira Aldridge and centuries more
once all my heroes were newborn in their passing
and I’d never seen myself so clear in the face of a stranger
a stranger older than the death I’d known
in victorian black & white
in woollen tunic and blue violet silks
on stages spinning amethyst worlds
softer cottons of lavender for sleep
that we might dream of longer inheritances.

Dig Where You Stand will be a city centre exhibition in various locations, with hubs in the Moor Market, Theatre Deli and Sheffield Central Library 25th-30th October. Now Then is serialising the project with writing by Désirée Reynolds and poems by Otis Mensah over the rest of the month. Design by Jamie @ Peter and Paul.

Next in series

Dig Where You Stand: Speak Story to Power

Désirée Reynolds has been the Writer In Residence at Sheffield Archives for six months. Using a style which combines archival material, documentary prose and fiction, Désirée weaves together her creative responses to what she has found and not found in them. This is the last piece for Now Then, in her serialisation of ‘Dig Where You Stand’.

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