Playwright Ros Martin is developing a new work inspired by the life of her relative, Nigerian actor, Orlando Martins.
Ros appeared at the First World War Day: Bristol 2014 Arts Projects event on 15 November at Watershed. She took part in the Black and Asian Perspectives on the First World War event linked to Moved by Conflict on 14 February 2015 at M Shed.
There are four sources for my work to begin with:
a slim biography of Orlando Martins by Takiu Folami. This out of print book, has content about his life and is full of images about his long film-acting career, for which he became well-known for in the UK in the 40’s and 50’s.
a Martins family photograph, that was handed to me a few years back by an elder cousin living in Preston. The photo is taken in Lagos, Nigeria, circa 1928. My late father is in the front row, left, the youngest member of the family gathering. He looks like he has just woken from sleep. One of the women is his mother. Is it the furthest woman seated on the right? Alongside her are her three sisters, Orlando’s sisters (two further sisters are missing from the photo), and my father’s maternal grandmother, Orlando’s mother, Madam Paula Soares is at the back. All the women assembled are traders. There are four generation of women traders. Apart from my father, I never knew any of the people in the photograph. Neither did I ever meet the absent, enigmatic Orlando.
He is not in the photograph because, already, he had been adventuring some 10 years in the UK. In 1928 he has settled in London with Doris, his ballet-dancer trained English white wife, and their baby son Al, would be in his first year.
a book: Black and in the Frame by Stephen Bourne. Half a chapter is dedicated to Orlando’s artistic legacy. Stephen Bourne informs me that he has been in communication with, Orlando’s only child, Al, over the book project. Polite and well spoken, Al told of his estrangement from his father. He also had made it very clear he did not wish to be a part of the project in any shape or form.
retrieving a copy of Orlando’s C10 merchant navy card courtesy of Southampton city archives. I find myself staring at a head shot of a young Orlando. Is he 19 or 23 years? The back of the card cites his year of birth as 1896. This is different to 1899 in the public domain.
Orlando was a merchant seaman during the First World War. I was able to identify the ship he enlisted on as a fireman: ss Benvenue of the Ben line, requisitioned as a coal ship towards the end of the war. Studying the detail on the back of his card, intriguingly, he cites his nationality and his father’s as British and next of kin, none.......
My starting of point on this research play writing project, has been an uncomfortable one. I can’t ignore a distinct memory as a small child in the 60’s being called along to the living room to watch ‘Uncle’ being pointed out by my father on the TV screen, in great mirth; he was in a Tarzan film.....
Creatively journeying enables me to think about Orlando Martins, the actor, the man, the husband, the father, Great Uncle who he was in his time and what his long life might represent to me and to the public at large.
Orlando has become now for me, an exploration of Britishness, colonialism during the first half of 20th century, how this shaped people’s attitudes, behaviour and lives. It is an opportunity afforded me to observe Britain’s evolving cultural landscape in film and on stage e.g the amazing artistry of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes of 1920 in which he played a role. Was it Cleopatra or another ballet he was a part of? The musical score underpinning Men of Two Worlds, acting alongside Paul Robeson in CLR James Toussaint L’Ouverture play. How does Orlando engage with this artistic odyssey, the roles, the jobs afforded him? Being in and out of work as an actor? I have an opportunity to consider his unique response to his experiences as life unfolds in the UK.
Essential to the British imperial war machinery of WW1 was the colonial project, propagating patriotism for the mother country, promoting trade, shaping identity, and inculcating a sense of ... entitlement and privilege for all its beneficiaries, white and black. Resistance would be all around because that’s what people do, resist. As armistice comes in, the British Empire would have its’ day.
This play depicts the conditions and working lives of seamen, particularly the firemen down below in steamships, the Industrial Workers of the World, Wobblie infiltration, agitating amongst seamen, riots in sea ports, West African student activity and political theatrical resistance raised in the 30s, and Orlando’s response to the world shifting around him.