The West Indian Front Room

The West Indian Front Room
The Visual Inspiration behind Let There Be Love
By Nirmala Nataraj

The West Indian Front Room exhibition
at the Geffrye Museum, 2005-2006
Photo by John Neligan
In 2005 Kwame Kwei-Armah was moved to write Let There Be Love after seeing an art exhibition at London’s Geffrye Museum of the Home. The show, entitled The West Indian Front Room: Memories and Impressions of Black British Homes, recreated the front rooms of African-Caribbean immigrants of the 1960s and ’70s, while providing stories from the first wave of West Indian immigrants to England. The vivid installations, awash in a sensorial landscape of sounds and sights, struck Kwei-Armah profoundly, and from his memories of the “politics of my family’s front room,” the story of Alfred, Gemma, and Maria emerged.

The exhibition’s curator, Michael McMillan, describes the quintessential front room, which is derived from the Victorian parlor: “colorful floral-patterned wallpaper and carpet that never matched, a glass cabinet that displayed glass and chinaware you never used, plastic-covered sofas, homemade crochet doilies, framed photographs . . . and other elements that embodied the family’s aspirations, prescribed codes of behavior, and moral values.” The exhibition itself included such memorabilia alongside compelling first-hand narratives of West Indian immigrants.

McMillan, who is also a playwright and fine artist, met Kwei-Armah in 1988. At the time, Kwei-Armah was acting in one of McMillan’s plays, First Impressions. After this creative collaboration, McMillan and Kwei-Armah kept in contact, although McMillan was unaware that Kwei-Armah had seen The West Indian Front Room “until he told me it had inspired his writing Let There Be Love,” recalls McMillan. When McMillan saw Let There Be Love during its inaugural run at London’s Tricycle Theatre in 2008, he “was struck by how Alfred and his relationship with his home caregiver, Maria, signified the shifting landscape of migration in British society,” he says.

McMillan, whose family hails from Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, notes that the exhibition reveals the struggles and social aspirations of the black diaspora. “For many of [the people in] their generation, moving from living in one room to having a front room in a home of their own was a sign that you had ‘made it.’ No matter who you were, if the front room looked good, then your family was respectable.”

McMillan’s 2005–06 exhibition was well received by black British audiences, as well as others from immigrant and working-class backgrounds, ultimately garnering over 35,000 visitors. In 2009 The Front Room: Migrant Aesthetics in the Home was published by Black Dog Publishing; it has been a reliable visual reference for A.C.T.’s production of Let There Be Love.

McMillan’s exploration of the importance of music among London’s West Indian immigrants is also apparent throughout Let There Be Love. The key item of furniture from the front room that Kwei-Armah decided to focus on is the “Blue Spot” radiogram, a common feature in West Indian homes throughout Britain. The radiogram usually included a radio and phonograph housed in a wooden cabinet, sometimes with a drinks bar beneath it. Jazz, soul, ska, bluebeat (Jamaican rhythm and blues), calypso, and reggae were imported in the form of seven-inch vinyl records, which offered immigrants a sense of home “that they could listen and dance to,” says McMillan.

McMillan and other cultural commentators have suggested that the arrival of the television subverted the formality of the front room and led to its eventual disappearance. “Many of my parents’ generation have passed away, and their front room stuff has either been dumped or been used in my exhibitions,” says McMillan.

Other West Indians have returned to their home countries, taking with them the contents of their front rooms. However, one can still occasionally find front rooms much like Alfred’s, where West Indian elders cherish what they worked so hard to acquire.

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