Celebrating Black Magic
WORDS BY CAMILLA MIKOLAJEWKA | PEFORMANCE
APR 03, 2023 | ISSUE 5
Magical Bones by Ella Mazur
Richard Essien—who goes by Magical Bones on stage—is considered to be one of the most exciting talents to emerge from the UK magic scene and has been entertaining audiences globally for over a decade. He was a finalist on Britain's Got Talent, with his audition tape alone gaining over 10 million views online. With the creation of his show Black Magic, Essien goes into the history of magic within the Black community and sheds light on the magicians whose stories have been neglected. On stage, Magical Bones breaks down the barriers of what it means to be a Black magician, sharing other peoples stories while creating his own. Essien joins smART Magazine to discuss his background and the reality of being a Black magician.
sM | How do you think the magic industry compares to other performing arts industries when it comes to diversity?
MB — To give some context and background as to why I decided to begin exploring Henry Brown, magic was just a hobby for me. I was always interested in this kind of separation where magic in the Black community has this sort of taboo while, in white or Western societies, it seems like pure entertainment. So from that context alone I always had a weird relationship with being a Black magician, and growing up I never knew any Black magicians or their history. With that being said, a lot of Black history is hidden. In the magic community we hear of Harry Houdini, David Copperfield, and more of the greats; however, there are quite a few people of colour in the magic industry who have done some amazing things but it hasn’t really come to light.
So I had a show called Black Magic in Edinburgh and it was sort of an exploration of what Black magic is, and what the relationship is in regards to conjuring magic within the community. I came across the story of Henry Brown, as I was writing Black Magic and I was fascinated by someone whose magic is more powerful than anything I ever heard of. In my opinion, his escape act is one of the greatest escape acts of all time. He wasn’t just doing this for recognition from his peers like Houdini, he was doing it to liberate people. The fact that he then came to the UK and worked as a magician for 25 years, all these stories really resonated with me on a personal level.
For starters, I didn’t know there was a Black magician touring across the UK and also didn’t realize that he was the first recognized Black American magician who was seen as a celebrity. He was the David Blaine of his time, despite racism. I find these things quite fascinating and I just want to explore them.
These things for me are very nurturing. I’ve learned a lot about myself as a magician and bringing these topics to the UK really opens people’s eyes and I think this is really a story that hasn’t been told. You don’t want to keep hearing the same old stories, I want something new. I want to talk about the female magicians, or Black female magicians. Ellen Armstrong, for example, was the first female magician to have her own touring show in America in the 1900s, which was unheard of as a Black female. These are the stories I’m looking to share.
sM | What would you say remains unique and relevant about the magical experience in a world where CGI and visual editing has desensitized our capacity for wonder and pleasant surprise?
MB — That’s a very interesting question, and the reason that it’s interesting is because we have this debate in magic on how much editing can be used in TV or social media magic. What’s fair and what isn’t fair? This conversation is ongoing between magicians. There is a sort of level of trust that if you say something is done genuinely, meaning you haven’t just used CGI to make things appear or disappear, then that’s impressive.
The truth is that magic is an experience, and my personal belief is that it’s the experience of astonishment and wonder and that doesn’t only relate to just magicians, it can be to anyone. Anyone who can give you an experience of wonder, whether it’s a movie with an amazing CGI effect, or Whitney Houston belting out a note—once you get that feeling of astonishment, that’s magic. So I’m not threatened by technology because, as a performer, I believe magicians should be making people experience that regardless of how they do it.
Two of my favourite movies are The Prestige and Now You See Me, and there is an illusion they do in Now You See Me that I have yet to see a real world magician do, but I still love the idea. There is a moment where she [Isla Fisher] floats in the air in a bubble and it was just a beautiful effect, and that was magic to me. I love that film because the effects are not outside the realms of possibility; a magician could conceivably create these effects so I enjoyed that. I don’t care about the CGI, the results were magical and astonishing. I am fully engrossed in the storytelling.
sM | How did you make the transition from dance to magic, and what aspects of your personality as a dancer translates to your personality as a magician?
MB — The transition was a natural evolution as a performer. I was working as a dancer for 15 years, and I would always be making card tricks on the set, messing around, showing people stuff—it was just a hobby and people were saying, “Oh, you should do this,” so naturally I combined these ideas.
I also used to dance in the street, which allows you to be really expressive, and there are no rules, you just engage a crowd and try new things out. So it was a natural progression from dance to magic. My name as a dancer was Bones, and then I just transitioned into Magical Bones. It gives me a certain rhythm in my performance and I love to incorporate my music in my work. I do a song called “Hip Hop Story,” which is about cards, so even the way I use cards or roll out my coins, I follow a rhythm. I call it soulful magic.