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Mustapha Matura, Caribbean playwright in London, dies at 79
In a photo provided by the National Theatre Archive, Mustapha Matura, a jovial man recognizable by his luxurious mustache, was immersed in the Caribbean community of West London, in 1981. Matura whose often satirical plays spoke for an alienated West Indian population in postwar Britain and for the people he left behind in Trinidad and Tobago, died on Oct. 29, 2019, in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, after having a heart attack on a flight from New York City. He was 79. Michael Mayhew/National Theatre Archive via The New York Times.

LONDON (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- In the winter of 1961, Mustapha Matura, fresh from a trans-Atlantic voyage from his native Trinidad and Tobago, a British colony at the time, arrived in London expecting a world of opportunities.

He was quickly disillusioned. In a period rife with anti-immigrant hate crimes in Britain, Matura, who was about 21 at the time, had felt the sting of racism even before coming ashore, taunted by a sailor during the ocean crossing.

“We went to London and found out the sophistication of our dreams was just a gloss,” he told The New York Times in 1977. “It was very harsh on the bottom of the ladder.”

It was an awakening that compelled him to begin writing, distilling his experiences into plays even while holding down jobs as a garment factory assistant and a hospital porter. Troubled by stereotypes of black Britons and a British society that, he found, hypocritically masked its intolerance, he explored themes of racial independence and cultural transition in writing about the lives of Caribbeans, both in London and in his homeland, against the backdrop of their colonial past.

He would go on to write 20 or so plays from 1971 to 1994, some of them staged in the United States and elsewhere, earning the admiration of black writers throughout Britain.

Matura died at 79 on Oct. 29 in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, after having a heart attack on a flight from New York City, where he had been visiting a grandchild, his friend and collaborator Nicolas Kent said. The plane was diverted to St. John’s so that he could get medical help.

Matura gained attention early in his career with his satire “Play Mas,” which opened at the London Royal Court in 1974, making him the first playwright of color to have a play produced in London’s West End.

“Play Mas” — the title refers to the annual carnival in Trinidad and Tobago in which everyone plays masquerade — begins with the story of Samuel, a young tailor’s assistant in Port of Spain, the capital, who dreams of his country’s independence. (The twin-island colony did achieve independence in 1962, a year after Matura had arrived in Britain.)

The second half of the play takes place after independence, when Samuel has become a corrupt government official.

Reviewing a revival of “Play Mas” in 2015, The Guardian wrote, “This is a richly informative play that raises big questions about the nature of liberation, and is also hilariously precise about the shifting balance of power.”

“Play Mas” won London Evening Standard Theater Awards for best play and for most promising playwright.

The spirit of Trinidad infused Matura’s writing. Plays like “Rum an’ Coca Cola” (1976), “Independence” (1979) and “Meetings” (1981) capture the seldom-explored complexity of British Caribbean life, with its rich ethnic heritage — Indian, Creole, African, Chinese, British and even Lebanese — at a time of political and social upheaval.

“The fact that he came from the Indian side of Trinidad made a difference, because he had a slightly different perspective,” his wife, Ingrid Selberg, said in a phone interview.

“His work pokes holes and takes down people of all races and all points of view,” she added. “He had a very evenhanded, humane approach.”

That approach could be traced to Matura’s very attitude about racial differences, Kent said. “He never saw people as one race or another,” he said. “He really loved cultural differences and celebrated them.”

He was born Noel Matura in Port of Spain on Dec. 17, 1939. His father, Chandra Bhan Matura, was a car salesman who had immigrated from India. His mother, Violet Ashbrook, worked at a department store. Her ancestors had arrived in the West Indies from Africa as slaves.

(Matura, his wife said, felt a bond with the Nobel laureate in literature V.S. Naipaul, whom he had met, in part because of their common roots: Naipaul was a fellow Trinidadian and London transplant of Indian heritage.)

Matura dropped out of school at 13 and moved to London eight years later, leaving his family in Port of Spain and changing his given name to Mustapha simply, he said, because he liked the sound of it.

He came of age in the era of the so-called Windrush generation, Caribbean people invited to Britain to help rebuild the country after World War II. (Windrush was the name of a passenger liner that had carried many of them to Britain.) And he was inspired by the Black Power movement of the 1960s.

But though he was writing in Britain, his focus was typically far across the Atlantic.

In his “Playboy of the West Indies,” which opened at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center in New York in 1993, Matura created his own version of John Millington Synge’s “The Playboy of the Western World,” transposing the action from Synge’s Ireland to Trinidad. In so doing he turned the story of a once-servile son who brags about killing his tyrannical father into an exploration of Trinidad’s national identity.

“I wrote this play and my others,” he told The New York Times in 1993, “because I’m constantly trying to understand the character of Trinidad and the Trinidadians. They are enormously resilient: They will be down, but they will always tell you a joke or offer a drink.”

At his death, Matura was working with Kent on a musical version of “Playboy of the West Indies.” Kent said it was expected to go into production in 2021.

Matura seldom strayed in his work from the rich singsong vernacular of Trinidad and Tobago. In “Welcome Home Jacko” (1979), a story about black political resistance told through the lives of black British teenagers, the title character returns from five years in prison and says: “When I went in people eye was opening, now I come out it closed. Wha happen, wha happen ter all yer? We fight de racist in prison. All yer outside, wha all yer do?”

“Jacko” was the first play produced by Matura’s Black Theater Cooperative, a company he founded with British producer and director Charlie Hanson in 1978. Hanson said in an interview that the play was the first that he knew of to attract black British teenagers to the theater.

In his later years Matura concentrated on television. He wrote “No Problem!,” a sitcom about five black siblings, and created the series “Black Silk” with British civil rights lawyer Rudy Narayan in 1985, the same year he adapted “Playboy of the West Indies” for BBC Two. Matura’s television work remains his most popular.

In addition to his wife, with whom he lived in London, Matura is survived by their son, Cayal; their daughter, Maya; two children, Dominic and Ann, from an earlier marriage, to Marian Walsh; and six grandchildren.

A jovial man recognizable for his luxurious mustache and for wearing sunglasses indoors, Matura became immersed in the Caribbean community of West London, frequenting pubs on Portobello Road, playing pool and throwing lines across the tables with other writers.

“What I think fuels the creative engine of Trinidad is good old-fashioned rebellion,” he said in 2016, when accepting an honorary fellowship at Goldsmiths, University of London. “Nonconformity, challenging the accepted, asking the question ‘Why?’”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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