Black British theatre’s great leap forward

We are in a new golden age for Black British theatre. Over the last two years, a raft of productions from Black theatre-makers have been making waves, garnering critical acclaim and exciting audiences. Black writers and directors are relishing telling the stories that they want to tell and are undeterred in getting them on stage. Alongside plays and musicals, productions that interweave drama, movement, music and even verbatim theatre are coming to the fore, creating a diverse ecology of storytelling that aims to inspire more Black writers and directors into the industry.

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This moment has been a long time coming. In the 1950s, three writers – Wole Soyinka, Errol John and Barry Reckord – paved the way for Black writers when their plays were staged at the Royal Court in London. Between the 1960s and 80s, many Black writers and actors were denied opportunities for regular work and turned to forming collectives and theatre companies to create and stage their plays. Many failed to survive without continued public funding. Contrast that with today, when three theatre companies – Croydon-based Talawa, Eclipse and Tiata Fahodzi, which focuses on the changing African diaspora in Britain – receive regular funding from Arts Council England.

Actor and director Yvonne Brewster, a pioneer of Black British theatre, now in her 80s, recalls that when she graduated from Rose Bruford drama school in 1959 she was told she would never get work. Suffering from a dearth of career opportunities, she co-founded Talawa in 1986, to create opportunities for Black theatre-makers. However, she faced resistance from men when she set up writing workshops for women and encouraged female directors. “We weren’t supposed to direct,” she says. “‘You’re out of your place, get back in the kitchen’ … And then you want to encourage women to write? It was crazy.”

Yvonne Brewster, former artistic director and co-founder of Talawa.
Yvonne Brewster, former artistic director and co-founder of Talawa.

Just as the pioneers in Black British theatre created spaces for Black work to thrive, Londoner Ryan Calais Cameron has recently done the same, setting up the collective Nouveau Riche in 2015. Cameron, now 34, is an actor turned writer, whose play For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy, about five young men who join together for group therapy, opened to rave reviews at the Royal Court this year.

Cameron created For Black Boys … after noticing how the pandemic was affecting the mental health of young Black men. “What you’re dealing with right now isn’t that you just don’t want to go out,” he says. “You’re dealing with anxiety. You’re not someone who’s just a moody guy; you’re dealing with depression. I wanted to create characters who were talking about this, but without being able to have the science for it, because it wouldn’t be authentic for one of my characters to be like: ‘Hey, I’m so depressed.’”

Cameron asked the Royal Court to go further than just stage the play. He wanted to create an environment within the building that would be welcoming to his target audience of young Black men. He recalls his conversation with the Royal Court’s artistic director, Vicky Featherstone: “We’re going to need this kind of music being played, we’re going to need this type of drink being sold, you’re going to need to walk around the theatre and see images of young Black boys.” Cameron is rightly proud of his play – 70% of tickets sold out before the show opened. “The thing that meant the most to me was that young Black men were gonna come in and see this.”

Nickcolia King-N’da and Velile Tshabalala in Sian Carter’s Running With Lions.
Nickcolia King-N’da and Velile Tshabalala in Sian Carter’s Running With Lions. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Another play to emerge amid the lockdowns was Running With Lions. Commissioned by Talawa to create opportunities for Black writers to keep working and earning during the pandemic, the play began life as a Radio 4 drama, part of a three-part series by new writers. It tells the story of a British-Caribbean family dealing with their unique reactions to the death of a loved one. According to director Michael Buffong, “something like 800,000 people” listened to the series, and to capitalise on this success he transferred Running With Lions to a live setting earlier this year. “We had the opportunity to do the full-length version of it at [London’s] Lyric Hammersmith. And it was brilliant. It’s fantastic to be the launchpad for these writers. We can look back and go: ‘Yep, they started here [and] we were the people who helped them.’”

During the pandemic, some Black plays moved from the stage to screen. Natasha Marshall’s play Half Breed, a semi-autobiographical, coming-of-age drama about finding your voice, was broadcast on BBC Four in 2021, and Nicôle Lecky adapted her 2019 one-woman stage play, Superhoe, about the world of influencers, sex work and mental health, into the daring drama series Mood, which earned much acclaim when it aired on BBC Three earlier this year.

In February, Chinonyerem Odimba, artistic director of the Watford-based Tiata Fahodzi, won the 2020 Writers’ Guild of Great Britain award for best musical theatre bookwriting for Black Love. The play is about a brother and sister who look after each other in a small flat filled with the memories of their parents’ love. Along with House of Ife, Here’s What She Said to Me and Running With Lions, Odimba’s play is one of many tracing the contours of Black family life. “Nothing gives me [more] joy than new work coming up and flourishing and growing,” she says. Still, Odimba sounds a note of caution about the potential for Black work to be marginalised when it comes to marketing. “Sometimes the messaging around [a show] and putting it in special lights, or giving it a particular sense that it’s something different,” can be detrimental to inclusion for Black artists and their work.

Chinonyerem Odimba’s Black Love.
Chinonyerem Odimba’s Black Love. Photograph: Marc Brenner

Buffong says we need to get “rid of all the barriers that people refuse to believe are there for us”. Determined to dismantle those barriers for Black writers are two passionate and insightful women working as artistic directors, Natalie Ibu from Newcastle upon Tyne’s Northern Stage and Lynette Linton from the Bush theatre in London.

Ibu spent six years as artistic director at Tiata Fahodzi before being appointed by Northern Stage in 2020. She is currently directing The White Card by the African American playwright, Claudia Rankine, in which a wealthy, privileged white couple invite a talented Black artist to dinner. Tensions run high and a heated debate uncovers some uncomfortable truths that can’t be ignored about white privilege, cultural appropriation and representation. As part of a national tour, the play is at the Soho theatre in London for a four-week run. For Ibu, “it felt really important that it was made by a global-majority creative team. So while there are four white actors on stage, and one Black woman, I wanted to make sure that the lens of this production was held by the global majority. Who better to talk about whiteness than those who have to navigate it every single day?”

For all that Black theatre is enjoying a post-Black Lives Matter breakthrough, the bright lights of the West End have thus far proved elusive for Black British writers and directors. Linton’s vision for making sure that works by Black writers and directors don’t only appear on the Bush’s stage is simple: “Black British work is part of the canon and the ecology of British theatre.” For her, the Bush is about “disrupting the canon, disrupting the West End, disrupting what we see, so stories like House of Ife and Red Pitch can be seen as plays that could be staged in the West End.”

There is a temptation to see these recent successes as some kind of renaissance for Black British theatre, with more productions and writers being given opportunities to adapt their work for the screen, but the future will determine how decisive this period – in the aftermath of the pandemic, the killing of George Floyd, and BLM – has been in creating lasting change and equity in British theatre. Dismantling systemic racism is the key to achieving true inclusion. As Cameron says: “I want longevity, I don’t want to be part of a fashion trend.”

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