Sunday, December 8, 2013

Charles Kaufmann of The Longfellow Chorus: 'The Man Who Would Be Coleridge-Taylor: An Interview With Adetokumboh M’Cormack'

[Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) is profiled at, which features a comprehensive Works List and a Bibliography by Prof. Dominique-René de Lerma, We are collaborating with the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Foundation of the U.K.,]

Photo by Birdie Thompson

Charles Kaufmann writes:

Hi Bill,

You might be interested in posting this:


Interview With Adetokumboh M'Cormack by Charles Kaufmann

Adetokumboh M’Cormack—the Sierra Leonean actor known for his roles in the war films Blood Diamond and Battle: Los Angeles—is obsessed with the idea of playing Samuel Coleridge-Taylor—the late-Victorian Afro-English classical music composer—in a Hollywood-style feature film. I met Adé on October 8, 2013, in Pasadena, California, after screening my documentary Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and His Music in America, 1900–­1912 at Pasadena City College. Over dinner at Plate 38, a restaurant on East Colorado Boulevard, we talked about Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Shakespeare, and other things.

Certainly, in many ways, Adetokumboh M’Cormack is Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Like Coleridge-Taylor, the intonation of his free-flowing casual talk is elegantly British. Like Coleridge-Taylor, he laughs easily and often. Still young enough to look the part of the twenty-two-year-old boy wonder of Royal College of Music, Class of 1897, he’d have Coleridge-Taylor’s slight build if he weren’t so muscle-bound. Wardrobe could deal with that. And this good-looking, well-groomed guy would want to grow a maestro’s mop of tousled hair.

Charles Kaufmann: When did you first become interested in Samuel Coleridge-Taylor?

Adetokumboh M’Cormack: Funny story. A couple of years ago, I googled my name, as people sometimes do, and I noticed that I was on a list of “Notable Sierra Leone Krio people.” On the list next to my name was this man, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, who was listed as a composer. I hadn’t realized that there were any famous composers of Sierra Leonean descent in the nineteenth century, so I began to do more research. What I found out was fascinating. The man was an incredibly talented musician who led an extraordinary life. He was an accomplished violinist. He composed masterpieces at a fairly early age, like The Song of Hiawatha, which many people compared to Handel’s Messiah. He met with President Roosevelt in the White House. Some saw him as instrumental in bringing about what later became known as the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. The Performing Rights Society in the United Kingdom was founded because of the difficulties Coleridge-Taylor—and later, his family—had collecting royalties. There are so many amazing things about this man’s life. I became obsessed, and kept reading books and watching documentaries. I wanted to know more about this truly great man whose father was from my country. I just found it surprising that not many people knew who he was.

CK: Tell me more about your ancestry.

AM: I’m originally from Sierra Leone, but my dad was a diplomat, so I grew up in several different countries. My ancestry, though, is pretty interesting. I’m Sierra Leonean Creole, or “Krio,” so that basically means that I’m descended from freed slaves. Many of us have ancestors who were Black Loyalists—slaves who joined British colonial forces during the American Revolutionary War in return for freedom. They were evacuated to Nova Scotia in Canada and, from there, migrated to Freetown to create a new nation.

CK: Do know the origin of your family name?

AM: The name M’Cormack is Irish. My family has a couple of theories on how we got the name. One is that we are descended from an Irish timber merchant named John McCormack, who settled in Sierra Leone around 1814. The name could also have been given to a local citizen, or a returned slave whom McCormack adopted. Several generations later, we still carry the name. Another theory is that it was the last name of the slave owner of one of my ancestors; when he was freed, he still kept the name.

CK: What’s been your favorite film role so far? Your least favorite?

AM: There have been so many good ones, it’s tough to choose. If I had to pick my favorite, I would probably say my character Joshua Brand in the upcoming film Beyond The Mask. I play a British assassin in the eighteenth century. The character is such a bad ass. I’ve got some great dialogue. Awesome action sequences. Great fight choreography. Great cast. And I had all these cool weapons I got to work with. I had a blast creating this really dark, complex character that is so different from what I actually am.
I don’t really have a least favorite role. I suppose the most challenging one was in Blood Diamond, where I play this rebel who teaches children how to kill. I did a lot of research and read a lot of books and watched documentaries. I spoke to former child soldiers, and talked to actual people who had been victims of the atrocities committed during the Sierra Leonean civil war. Hearing their stories about how they watched loved ones get brutally murdered was really very depressing. Being a Sierra Leonean, I knew people who were directly affected by the war, so the whole thing was very personal. I was in a dark place for several weeks while I was shooting the movie, and for a long time after.

CK: How would you portray Coleridge-Taylor in a film? Do you think there’d be a wide potential audience? As you know, classical music is not exactly mainstream. There’s nothing in the Coleridge-Taylor story that would lend itself to the obligatory Hollywood car chase, or mega explosion, or pirates brandishing fighting knives and saying, “Arrgh!”

AM: Definitely no need for car chases, or explosions, or knives (laughs). I think his story is fascinating enough. And his music is so incredibly moving. Watching excerpts of his music in your documentary, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and His Music in America, 1900–1912, I was completely lost in these marvelous orchestral masterpieces. They were so powerful, so evocative. They transported me to another place and time. Everybody, regardless of age, ethnicity, or background, can appreciate his music.

Talk about an ideal role! A film version of Coleridge-Taylor’s story is something I’ve been working on for a couple of years now. Since I first found out about him, I’ve felt this kinship. I felt like I knew him, even though he died some seventy years before I was born. There are so many aspects of his story I can identify with: The fact that his father was a Sierra Leonean, that he grew up in a country he called home, but, because of his skin color, wasn’t fully embraced by many of his fellow countrymen.

Being the son of an expat, I know a thing or two about growing up in a country you call home, but in which you are still seen as an alien. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor went to a conservatory for music. I went to a conservatory for acting. He was incredibly passionate about his craft. Many looked up to him. He had a great responsibility to be an agent of change because of who he was. To a certain degree, many Sierra Leoneans see me in the same way. I could go on and on.

But I think what makes his story so interesting is that it’s so universal. Everybody can relate to him on some level. I think people will relate most to his heart. He was a normal person with an extraordinary talent who unwittingly became a hero. I think that is what will grab an audience. He was shy. He was modest. He had insecurities. He had faults. People can identify with that. Something else an audience will find interesting is how his life is so intertwined with history. For example, he was a friend of some of the great African-American icons, like Paul Laurence Dunbar, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois. He worked to promote Pan-Africanism and racial equality. He broke racial barriers through his work. What he accomplished in his relatively short life was truly extraordinary.

CK: At first, you wanted to make an adaption of Charles Elford’s book, Black Mahler. Is it still a possibility?

AM: I did originally want to adapt Black Mahler into a film. I read it a couple of years ago and thought it was a wonderful book. Charles Elford did a good job researching the life of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. I reached out to him to see if it was something I could option, but talks ultimately fell apart. I also realized that it just didn’t make sense to adapt it into a screenplay because there were so many things about this great man’s life that were just simply not in the book. And there were also certain things that had been changed or omitted, because, well, that’s just the nature of writing a novel. I mean, the same goes when writing a screenplay, too.

I realized I wanted something that was more biographical and just more historically accurate. And to be confined to telling a story adapted from one specific book would not be fair to Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. So I spoke to other experts on Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and read many other books, and watched documentaries that offered what I felt was a more accurate, in depth, biographical look at his life. And using these other sources, and having input from these other experts, I’ve been able to develop a script that I think will offer a more truthful and compelling look at the life of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

CK: How did you first become interested in acting? Did your parents approve?

AM: I’ve wanted to be an actor for as long as I can remember. I was four or five when I did my first play in kindergarten, and I remember having so much fun. When I was twelve, a Kenyan casting director saw me onstage in a play I was doing at school. He asked me if I was interested in auditioning for a Hallmark television movie that was going to be shot in Kenya. I auditioned and ended up getting cast in a lead role alongside Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the movie The Great Elephant Escape. It was then that I realized I wanted to seriously do this as a profession. I began to study drama at school. I took acting workshops at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts (LAMDA), and eventually went to New York, where I studied acting at the Conservatory of Theatre Arts and Film at SUNY Purchase College.

I think my father may have expected me to follow a different path. Most Sierra Leoneans end up doing “respectable” professions, such as doctors and lawyers. My sisters all have PhDs in things like political science. A couple of them are professors. So I think there may have been an expectation for me to go into academia. But I’ve been acting for so long, I don’t think it was much of a surprise when I announced I wanted to be an actor.

I think my mother supported the idea. She had been an actress in Sierra Leone when she was young. When she married my father and had a family, she stopped acting and became a teacher. She returned to the stage a few times later in her life, and I was fortunate to see her work. She was a tremendous actress. So, acting is definitely in my genes. I think that’s probably also why my parents did end up supporting me in my career choice.

CK: You became not just an actor—you became a Shakespearean actor. How did this come about? Did you expect to act in productions of Shakespeare exclusively? At what point did you realize that perhaps you would have to compromise your dreams in order to gain success as an actor?

AM: My interest in Shakespeare and the classics started pretty early on. Once again, I credit my mother. She had studied elocution. She was a teacher. She loved words. And she taught me how to love the English language. As a child, I would enter these poetry-reading competitions. I enjoyed how words could be strung together, the use of alliteration, the onomatopoeia, the rhymes—how one could use these marvelous words to paint beautiful images. I think that was probably the precursor to my becoming an actor.

I was around ten when I watched my sister play Viola in her high-school production of Twelfth Night, and that took my interest to a whole new level. There was all this brilliant dialogue, and I was impressed with how these teenage actors so expertly knew how to play with all the double entendres and irony.

I don’t think I really understood that much of it, but I was definitely intrigued and started reading all of Shakespeare’s plays. At school we had wonderful literature and drama teachers—one, in particular, named Alexander Manning. He was able to break down these works, and I gained a much deeper understanding and respect for the plays and their author.

So, when I went to an acting conservatory, it was the classics that I naturally gravitated towards—from the Greek tragedies, to works by Ben Jonson, Marlowe, Moliere, and so many others. I loved to dissect Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, and would be so excited to discover a trochee in a verse of iambic pentameter when a character was making a specific point. I loved his wit, his use of antithesis. I loved the sharp, spitting, percussive sounds a character would use in anger, or the long vowels he would use when a character’s heart was “full of woe.” Or even how powerful the seemingly simple exclamation “O” could be.

Of course Shakespeare wasn’t the only thing that I was interested in. I enjoyed the works of many modern playwrights, like Athol Fugard, Andrew Moodie, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neil, Odets, Mamet. I was just drawn more to the classics, and presumed when I left the Conservatory that I would be doing Shakespeare in the Park.

My rude awakening came shortly after graduating. At my first Shakespeare audition, I was asked to “rap” my monologue. I was horrified and imagined Shakespeare rolling over in his grave. I also could not rap to save my life; so, needless to say, the audition was a complete disaster. And my subsequent auditions were all pretty much the same. Nobody seemed to want to hire an actor with perfect diction and who observed “the rules.” It was so very depressing. The one thing I wanted to do, it seemed, I wasn’t allowed to do. It felt like a cruel joke.

I had several people tell me to “go to Hollywood and try doing some TV and film.” Hollywood at the time did not interest me at all. There didn’t seem to be a thriving theatre community there. The actors didn’t appear to be “artists.” It was a whole different world. Mind you, I had never even been there.

One day, I got a call from a Canadian actor I worked with named David Alpay and he basically said, “Hey, I’m going to LA. I think you should come, too, and see what happens.”

So, frustrated with not getting work in New York, and completely broke, I packed my bags and went on a trip that was only supposed to last a few weeks. I ended up getting a manager. Soon after that, I booked my first job on The Unit. And then I booked Lost. Before I knew it, I started working consistently. And here I am, still living in Los Angeles eight years later.

CK: What’s your favorite Shakespeare passage?

AM: I find myself reciting a lot of Macbeth. There’s a fantastic monologue in Act I, Scene VII, where he goes:

If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well

It were done quickly: if the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success, etc.

And then, later, in Act II, he has another one that I really like:
Is this a dagger which I see before me . . .
“To be or not to be” in Hamlet is probably one of the most beautiful soliloquies ever written. It’s definitely an old favorite of mine. I also enjoy “Speak the speech I pray you,” where he advises a group of actors on how to “act.”
I’m a huge fan of many of Shakespeare’s sonnets. I do Sonnet 30 and 71 quite often.

CK: Would you recite one for me?

CK: That’s beautiful, Adé. Thank you. There’s one line in there that is pretty intense: “Then can I grieve at grievances foregone/And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er/The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan/Which I new pay as if not paid before.” Do you find it difficult to be someone who understands such complex things that few people understand? I mean, do you feel sometimes that you have to translate yourself into a simpler form in order to be understood.

AM: Yes, it is a pretty intense sonnet. I find I definitely gravitate toward Shakespeare’s heavier material, like the tragedies, or the darker sonnets. I think Sonnet 30 just speaks to what everyone goes through at some point in their lives. It’s a man reflecting over his life and the losses he endures during his lifetime. Lost friends, lost loved ones. Missed opportunities: “I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought.” But as seemingly depressing as the sonnet is, I do find it uplifting towards the end. To me, the rhyming couplet, “But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,/All losses are restored and sorrows end,” is a reminder that no matter what we go through in our lives, there are always people we hold dear who can bring us back up, help us through the darkest times, and help us appreciate everything that we have.

I think it reminds us to live life to its fullest. One of my favorite sayings is vive sine timore, which is Latin for “live without fear” or “live without regret.” In this short time we have on this planet we must truly live every second of our lives.

As with everything in life, the more you master something the easier it is to understand. That’s the wonderful thing about studying Shakespeare’s work—you’re always discovering something new. I do wish more people appreciated Shakespeare. I find that many people, and, indeed, many actors in general, do not necessarily share my passion for his work. So, it’s not something I really get to talk about that often. But I think if more people just read more of Shakespeare’s work, they would realize that it really is not all that difficult to understand. They would gain a deeper appreciation, and just be less intimidated by it.

Charles Kaufmann, conductor, with Angela Brown, soprano, and the Orchestra of The Longfellow Chorus.

CK: Back to Coleridge-Taylor. I know that you are interested in the poet Kathleen Easmon, Coleridge-Taylor’s younger Sierra-Leonean friend. Have you heard my orchestra’s recording with soprano Angela Brown of Coleridge-Taylor’s setting of Easmon’s poem The Stars? It’s about a black baby and a white baby, and their mothers—about our common humanity. I arranged the music from Coleridge-Taylor’s piano score and some out-of-print string parts from the Library of Congress. He must have arranged it originally for full orchestra, so my strings-only version is not fully accurate in that sense.

AM: (watches video). Terrific job, Charles! That was beautiful. And Angela Brown’s voice is sensational.

CK: Tell me how Kathleen Easmon fits into your Coleridge-Taylor film.

AM: My interest in Kathleen Easmon Simango began when I kept seeing her name pop up in almost everything I read about Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Upon doing more research, I discovered that, like SC-T, she, too, was Sierra Leonean. And that piqued my interest even more. She was a renowned poet and dancer who became very good friends with Coleridge-Taylor. He composed music to several of her poems, like The Stars and Big Lady Moon, which were part of the Five Fairy Ballads.

My connection to her is very interesting. One of my mother’s best friends, whom she called “sister,” was named Nadaline Osman, née Nadaline Easmon. I always called her Aunty. Given her maiden name, I knew there must have been a connection to Kathleen Easmon, but for some reason, I never pushed it. My Aunty Nadaline recently passed away, sadly, and that prompted me to talk to her kids about their ancestry. I pretty much grew up with her kids and consider them family. We call each other cousins.

So, they began talking about having traced their ancestry back to Dr. John Ferrell Easmon, whose daughter happened to be Kathleen Easmon. So Kathleen is their great aunt, or something like that. Another interesting fact is that Kathleen Easmon’s great-grandfather was John McCormack, the Irish timber merchant my family traces its lineage to. So, if indeed we are related to John McCormack, that would make me distantly related to Kathleen Easmon as well. And also to the family friends I’ve called “cousins” my whole life.

CK: Your interest in Coleridge-Taylor is serendipitous in numerous ways. It seems like you are destined to make this film, Adé. Thanks for talking with me about it. Break a leg!

[Charles Kaufmann is a professional bassoonist, an organist, a choral director, an award-winning composer, a filmmaker and a writer. He is founding artistic director of The Longfellow Chorus, a non-profit performing arts organization in Portland, Maine, with a mission to perform musical settings of the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow written between the years 1840 and the present. He earned his bachelor of music degree and performer’s certificate from Eastman School of Music (1977), and his master of music degree from Yale University School of Music (1982). He has twice been a Tanglewood fellow.]

Works Cited
Blood Diamond. Dir. Edward Zwick. Perf. Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Connelly, Djimon Hounsou, and Adetokumboh M’Cormack. Warner Bros., 2006. Film.

Battle: Los Angeles. Dir. Jonathan Liebesman. Perf. Aaron Eckhart, Michelle Rodriguez, Ramon Rodriguez, Bridget Moynahan, Ne-Yo, Michael Peña, and Adetokumboh M’Cormack. Columbia Pictures, 2011. Film.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and His Music in America, 1900–­1912. Dir. Charles Kaufmann. Perf.   Rodrick Dixon, Angela Brown, Robert Honeysucker, Rachel Barton Pine, Jeffrey Green, Wayne Shirley, Karen Shaffer and Paul Hawkshaw. The Longfellow Chorus, 2013. Film.

Coleridge-Taylor, Samuel. The Song of Hiawatha. 1897­–1899. Opus 30. Cantata. Text by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Handel, George Frideric. Messiah. 1741. HWV 56.

Beyond The Mask. Dir. Chad Burns. Perf. Andrew Cheney, John Rhys-Davies, Kara Killmer   and Adetokumboh M’Cormack. Burns Family Studios, 2014. Film.

Elford, Charles. Black Mahler. Grosvenor House Publishing Limited, April 2, 2008. Print.

The Great Elephant Escape. Dir. George Miller. Perf. Stephanie Zimbalist, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Adetokumboh M’Cormack and Leo Burmester. Signboard Hill Productions, 1995. Film.

The Unit. Creator: David Mamet. Perf. Dennis Haysbert, Regina Taylor, Audrey Marie Anderson, Adetokumboh M’Cormack, et al. CBS, 2006–2009. Television Series.

Lost. Creators: J. J. Abrams, Jeffrey Lieber, Damon Lindelof. Perf. Dennis Haysbert, Regina Taylor, Audrey Marie Anderson, Adetokumboh M’Cormack, et al. ABC, 2004–2010. Television Series.

Shakespeare, William. Sonnet 30. Originally published in SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS.: Never before imprinted. Thomas Thorpe, 1609.

Coleridge-Taylor, Samuel. The Stars. Perf. Angela Brown, The Orchestra of The Longfellow Chorus. Cond. Charles Kaufmann. YouTube. 2012.

Coleridge-Taylor, Samuel. Five Fairy Ballads. 1909. WWoO. Text by Kathleen Easmon Simango.

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