The Rise in Black Theatre,…in the UK?

Peter Bazalgette photographed at his home in Notting Hill, London
Sir Peter Bazalgette, Chairman of the Arts Council England (ACE)
Over the last few years England has seen a rise in the number of plays featuring Black talent in the country’s theatres. Plays written, produced and directed by playwrights of African descent, as well as the number of producing organizations primarily focused on works from the African diaspora, have become noticeably more frequent. Add to that the number of productions featuring all-Black casts and crews of white-authored plays and one begins to see that there is something significant changing in Great Britain. For many British citizens whose ancestors came from the Caribbean or Africa this change is long overdue.

As an island nation known for the works of Shakespeare, Wilde, Shaw and Pinter, staging a work by a Black British writer, one by a Caribbean author or an American import by August Wilson or Alice Childress is a very clear indication this is not the English stage of 10 or 20 years ago.

One significant change might be responsible for the pace of this inclusion more than any other. Two years ago Prime Minister David Cameron named Sir Peter Bazalgette as the new Chairman of Arts Council England (ACE). Few people thought it would change the status quo. They couldn’t have been more wrong. On taking office, Bazalgette announced a fundamental shift in ACE’s approach to diversity. He proposed that ACE would request grantees collect demographic information showing how diverse the workforce, programming and audiences are amongst the 670 theatres, dance companies, orchestras and arts venues that it regularly funds. Beginning in 2018 ACE will publish that data for the first time. If the arts organization refuses to comply then it faces having their public funding cut completely unless they show better progress.

The stark warning came from Bazalgette in what he describes as “one of the most important speeches I’ll make.” He gave the 670 arts organizations and venues two years (2016 and 2017) to improve their statistics. But evidence of it’s impact is visible now.

The logo for BLACK THEATRE LIVE’s production of HAMLET.
In fact, this new interest in the inclusion of other cultural voices has led to the creation of Black Theatre Live, a national consortium of 8 regional English theatres. Black Theatre Live is a partnership of Tara Arts (London), Derby Theatre, Queen’s Hall Arts (Hexham), Lighthouse (Poole), Theatre Royal Bury St. Edmunds, Theatre Royal Margate, Stratford Circus Arts Centre (London) and Key Theatre (Peterborough). The group committed to effecting change nationally for Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic touring theatre through a sustainable 3-year program of national touring, structural support and audience development. They just concluded a landmark touring production of HAMLET, the first all-Black production in Britain as part of the nation’s Shakespeare 400 anniversary celebration. This production was directed by Jeffery Kissoon (RSC, National Theatre, Robert Lepage, Peter Hall and in Peter Brook’s seminal production of THE MAHABHARATA) and adapted with Shakespeare’s text by award-winning playwright Mark Norfolk.

From left to right, Chin Nyenme and Enyi Okoronkwo in BOY WITH BEER
Certain plays by Black British writers have also been given new productions. Case in point, Paul Boakye’s edgy comedy play, BOY WITH BEER, which premiered in 1991. The story of an upwardly-mobile Ghanaian gay photographer named Karl who tries to uncover the finer feelings of coarse, young raver, Donovan. Initially seen as a one-night stand, the two men who don’t do it At the time the play was praised in reviews as an edgy play. The Independent call Boakye’s writing “brash and exceedingly fresh.” Through November 26, King’s Head Theatre in London mounted a 25th Anniversary revival production featuring act0rs Enyi Okoronkwo and Chin Nyenwe. When asked their opinions about the recent growth of opportunities for Black British theatre artists, they had some interesting things to said. Here are excerpts from a recent interview:

Chin: “It’s about time. Black people have been part of British history for centuries now and it’s unfortunate that it’s taken this long. I think a lot of people want a more diverse depiction of British life in the theatre.”

Enyi: “I have quite a cynical view. I celebrate big time when I see Black actors, particularly young Black actors, on stage. However what I love seeing the most are mixed casts. It makes me feel uncomfortable when it seems that the only way you can get Black actors on stage is if it’s a Black story that’s comfortably removed from a white perspective. I think that all stories can be told by everyone. I look at West End shows with generic, universal themes and most of the time, the cast is all white. There’s not really a reason for it that I can appreciate.”

L to R: Joseph Marcell (Fresh Prince of Bel-Air), Tanya Moodie, Daniel Ezra, Kiza Seen and Geoff Lesley, the cast of TROUBLE IN MIND, Theatre Royal Bath
Finally, as a part of their Season of Plays from North America, Theatre Royal Bath is currently presenting Alice Childress’s 1955 satirical comedy TROUBLE IN MIND through December 17. Childress was an extraordinary trailblazer in the history of American Theatre, the first African- American woman to win an OBIE award (for her production of TROUBLE IN MIND in 1956), to direct off Broadway and to have a play professionally produced in New York.

Ironically, her play is a wonderful example of the conditions many African-Americans have suffered under in an attempt to pursue a career in the theatre.  the lead character, Wiletta Mayer, is a talented African-American veteran actress who has spent a lifetime building her career in good – and bad – plays. Now on Broadway, rehearsing Chaos in Belleville, an anti-lynching play with a white director, Wiletta finds her big break is slightly bittersweet. As the rehearsals progress it becomes increasingly difficult for her to relate to the part she is playing. This leads to frictions which come to an explosive conclusion.

Peppered with knowing humor Childress’s richly drawn characters portray a vivid depiction of backstage life smartly satirizes the white-dominated theatre scene of the 1950s. 

But one could say the play makes some very insightful observations on the still white-dominated stages of 21st Century England. Hopefully, this is all past and not prologue considering the encouraging changes that are underway. All we can do is watch and speak up if circumstances revert to their less inclusive past.

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