Extracted from obituary published in The Times, Nov. 4th 2019
Mustapha Matura in 1974, when his breakthrough production, Play Mas, was performed at the Royal Court Theatre
Shortly after Mustapha Matura arrived in London from Trinidad he found work as a hospital porter. It was, after all, a “theatre job”, he would joke. Although “wheeling people in and wheeling bodies out” was not the most exciting way to make a living, like everything else that Matura did — office boy, stockroom assistant, film extra, failed gigolo — it provided rich material for his storytelling.
A friend from his school days recalled that even as a boy Matura had been a storyteller. “We used to call him the Rakeman, because he was always raking in stories about what was going on,” he told The Sunday Times in 1974.
Matura's plays were about Trinidadians and the Tropics, and teemed with the sensuality of life in the sun, where crabs come out of the lagoon at midnight and dowries are measured in fishing boats. As he told The Times in 1983: “The theme that runs through my work is the discovery of Caribbean sensibilities and culture.”
After his first three plays were performed as Black Pieces at the ICA in London in 1970, Irving Wardle wrote in The Times that they “suggest the work of a black Cecil Taylor: a writer divided between revolutionary conviction and human feeling, who writes plays to resolve this discord within himself”.
Soon afterwards came As Time Goes By (1971), an entertaining tale about a Trinidadian couple adjusting to life in London, although not far beneath the surface lies bitterness about what they have left behind. His first big success was Play Mas (1974), set in Trinidad at a time of post-colonial political unrest. It won the Evening Standard award for most promising playwright.
When Rum an’ Coca-Cola opened at the Royal Court in 1976 Matura received a phone call from the drinks company. “Does it denigrate Coca-Cola,” demanded the caller. “No,” Matura replied. “What’s it about?” “Two men.” “Are they homosexual?” “No, it’s about two calypso composers.” “Oh.” “And you'll be getting the name Coca-Cola in neon lights in a prime position.”
There were also riffs on established works, such as in Playboy of the West Indies (1984), a Caribbean version of Synge's The Playboy of the Western World that he adapted for BBC Two in 1985. He even took liberties with Chekhov in Trinidad Sisters (1988).
In 1991 Matura was the first Caribbean playwright to be produced at the National Theatre, with The Coup, about an imaginary botched revolution led by a charismatic leader that he described as an “honest and vivid” portrait of Trinidad. He had been commissioned to write about Mary Seacole, the British-Jamaican nurse, but as one character in the play observes: “Trinidadians don't like nobody to tell dem wat to do, yer know, they don't like it at all.”
A newspaper profile at the time described Matura as being “taller than the tallest story — and he specialises in those”, adding: “He has long hair, a booming voice, wears shades indoors, and has a morose walrus moustache which looks as if it might be false.” Lively and gregarious, he was a well-known figure in Notting Hill, where during carnival he would take friends from bar to bar, enjoying a glass of rum in each. One friend said that he never smoked, “except for illegal substances”.
His work had a serious undercurrent. British audiences, he told The Times in 1993, should realise that Caribbean culture is, in part, a legacy of Britain. “If you colonise a country... you create a version of yourself. The Caribbean people are products of an English education and an English system. You managed our lives. You have a responsibility to us.”
He was born Noel Mathura in Trinidad in 1939. His Hindu father, himself the son of a rural Brahmin priest who had emigrated from India, was an unsuccessful car salesman; his mother, a devout Anglican and a Creole of part-Scottish, part-African descent, worked in a department store.
The family lived in Belmont, Port of Spain, where his first school was a wooden room on stilts. At secondary school he became “a solitary subversive”, on one occasion collecting six strokes from a police cane for breaking a rule that decreed that there were to be “no rubber band and bent pin battles on [the] last day of school”.
He spent five years in a solicitor's firm, but was sacked after absentmindedly leaving the cash to pay the weekly wages in the foyer of a client's office. He moved on to stock management in a French hotel and began saving for his dream — a move to London, where he was determined “to do something artistic”. Yet he became involved in an accounting scam with the barmen and was again fired. The entanglements of the hotel's staff and guests inspired Independence (1979).
Setting sail in 1962, just before Trinidad gained independence, he spent the 14-day sea crossing beneath decks in steerage class with 200 men, documenting the gambling, stealing and fighting. On arrival he mailed the journal to his girlfriend in Trinidad, but later mourned its loss.
In London he stayed at a friend's house, where on the first morning he was awoken by a glamorous artist's model from Chelsea who had just come out of prison for bounced cheques. According to the biography on Matura's website: “She gave him a brief insight into and taste for the bohemian life in London. When his money ran out, so did she.”
After his porter's job at the National Temperance Hospital he headed to Italy with Horace Ové, a Trinidadian friend who had heard that there was work there in erotic films and providing intimate services for sex- starved rich women. He was wrong. Instead, he was taken on by a Rome theatre to operate the curtain on a production of Langston Hughes's Shakespeare in Harlem. However, he was so busy daydreaming of writing his own plays about the West Indian experience in London that one night he opened the curtain early. The next evening he brought it down at the wrong time. Once again he was unemployed.
When he returned to London his career as a playwright began to take o` and he changed his name to Mustapha Matura. “I liked the sound of it,” he said. “It was the Sixties.” To make ends meet he spent four years in the Helena Rubinstein cosmetics factory before becoming a stockroom assistant in a Jewish dress factory on Tottenham Court Road.
In those early years he frequented the shops, pubs and coffee houses of Ladbroke Grove. “People don't just give me ideas for stories,” he wrote in Inside Notting Hill (2001), a guide to the area. “In the Grove they give you their life stories also, and they come in every shape and size, from the acted-out telling to the perfectly timed punchlines. What more could I ask for?”
The financial rewards that came with box-office success and a clutch of prizes meant that Matura could concentrate on writing. In 1978 he co-founded the Black Theatre Co- operative (now called Nitro) with Charlie Hanson after they failed to interest any fringe theatres in Welcome Home Jacko, Matura’s play about young British Rastafarians. It ended up in New York, where it was seen by 20,000 people.
It was there that Meetings, about a Trinidadian couple struggling to adapt to being cash-rich but time-poor, was first seen in 1981. Matura believed that New York audiences did not have the same hang-ups about the West Indies as those in London. “The English want to know about India with all the glorious Raj,” he said. “Until they get an acceptable image of the Caribbean . . . they're not going to think about it.”
For much of the past 40 years Matura had been married to Ingrid Selberg, who works in children's book publishing. They met when Independence was staged at the Bush Theatre in London and she recalled how he was “magic on the dancefloor at the afterparty”. She survives him with their daughter, Maya, who works in digital marketing in London, and their son, Cayal, who works in advertising in New York. He is also survived by two children from an earlier marriage to Marian (née Walsh): Dominic, a music publishing director, and Ann, who is in public relations.
Matura had recently been overseeing revivals of his work and concentrating on poetry and art. He had also been developing a musical version of Playboy of the West Indies with Nicolas Kent, Clement Ishmael and Dominique Legendre, which was workshopped at the National Theatre last year and will go into production in 2021.
After Matura was last week taken ill on a transatlantic flight shortly after take-off, the aircraft was diverted to St John’s, Newfoundland, but he could not be resuscitated. His death was no less dramatic than his life.
Mustapha Matura, playwright, was born on December 17, 1939. He died of a heart attack on October 29, 2019, aged 79