Oe are in a new golden age for black British theatre. Over the past two years, a series of productions by black theater makers have made waves, garnered critical acclaim and captivated audiences. Black writers and directors love to tell the stories they want to tell and aren’t discouraged from bringing them to the stage. Alongside plays and musicals, productions that blend drama, movement, music, and even verbatim theater are taking center stage, creating a diverse ecology of storytelling that aims to inspire more Black writers and directors in industry.
This moment took a long time to come. 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 1980s, many black writers and actors were denied regular work opportunities and turned to forming collectives and theater companies to create and stage their plays. Many have not survived without continued public funding. Contrast that with today, when three theater companies – Croydon-based Talawa, Eclipse and Tiata Fahodzi, which focus on the evolving African diaspora in Britain – receive regular funding from Arts Council England. .
Actress and director Yvonne Brewster, a pioneer of black British theatre, now in her eighties, recalls that when she graduated from the Rose Bruford School of Drama in 1959, she was told that she would never find a job. Suffering from a lack of career opportunities, she co-founded Talawa in 1986, to create opportunities for black theater makers. However, she encountered resistance from men when she set up writing workshops for women and encouraged female directors. “We weren’t supposed to lead,” she says. “’You’re out of place, go back to the kitchen’… And then you want to encourage women to write? It was crazy.”
Just as the pioneers of black British theater created spaces for black work to thrive, Londoner Ryan Calais Cameron recently did the same by founding the Nouveau Riche collective in 2015. Cameron, now 34, is actor-turned-writer, whose play For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy, about five young men who come together for group therapy, received 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 just that you don’t want to go out,” he says. “You deal with anxiety. You’re not someone who’s just a moody guy; you suffer from depression. I wanted to create characters that spoke about it, but without being able to have the science of it, because it wouldn’t be authentic for one of my characters to say, “Hey, I’m so depressed.”
Cameron asked the Royal Court to go further than just staging the play. He wanted to create an environment in the building that would be welcoming to his target audience of young black men. He recalls his conversation with Royal Court artistic director Vicky Featherstone: “We’re going to need this kind of music to be played, we’re going to need this kind of drink to be sold, you’re going to have to walk around the theater and see images of young black boys. Cameron is rightly proud of his play – 70% of tickets sold out before the show opened. “What mattered most to me was that young black men were going to come and see this.”
Another piece to emerge amid the lockdowns was Running With Lions. Commissioned by Talawa to create opportunities for black writers to continue 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 an Anglo-Caribbean family dealing with their unique reactions to the death of a loved one. According to director Michael Buffong, “something like 800,000 people” tuned in to the show, and to capitalize on that success, he moved Running With Lions live earlier this year. “We had the opportunity to do the full version at [London’s] Lyrical hammer. And it was great. It’s fantastic to be the launch pad for these writers. We can look back and say, ‘Yeah, they started here [and] it was we who helped them.’ »
During the pandemic, some black plays have moved from stage to screen. Natasha Marshall’s play Half Breed, a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age drama about finding your voice, aired on BBC Four in 2021, and Nicôle Lecky adapted her 2019 solo play, Superhoe, on the world of influencers, sex work and mental health, in the daring drama series Mood, which was highly rated when it aired on BBC Three earlier this year.
In February Chinonyerem Odimba, artistic director of Watford-based Tiata Fahodzi, won the 2020 Writers’ Guild of Great Britain award for best musical theater writing for Black Love. The play tells the story of a brother and sister caring for each other in a small apartment filled with 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 to trace the contours of black family life. “Nothing gives me [more] joy that new work to come, flourish and grow,” she says. Yet Odimba cautions about the potential for black labor to be marginalized in marketing. “Sometimes the messages around [a show] and putting it in a special light, or giving it a special sense that it’s something different,” can be detrimental to the inclusion of black artists and their work.
Buffong says we need to get rid of “all the barriers that people refuse to believe are there for us.” Determined to dismantle these barriers for black writers, two passionate and insightful women work as artistic directors, Natalie Ibu of Newcastle upon Tyne’s Northern Stage and Lynette Linton of the Bush Theater in London.
Ibu spent six years as artistic director at Tiata Fahodzi before being appointed by Northern Stage in 2020. She currently directs The White Card by African-American playwright Claudia Rankine, in which a wealthy and privileged white couple invites a talented black artist at dinner. . Tensions run high and a heated debate reveals uncomfortable truths that cannot be ignored about white privilege, cultural appropriation and representation. As part of a national tour, the play is at London’s Soho Theater for four weeks. For Ibu, “it was really important that it was made by a creative team with a global majority. So, while there are four white actors on stage and a black woman, I wanted to make sure that the objective of this production was held by the world’s majority. Who better to talk about whiteness than those who have to navigate it on a daily basis?”
Despite all that black theater is experiencing post-Black Lives Matter breakthrough, the bright lights of the West End have so far proved elusive for black British writers and directors. Linton’s vision for ensuring that the works of black writers and directors don’t just appear on the Bush stage is simple: “Black British work is part of the canon and ecology of British theatre. For her, the Bush is about “disrupting the canon, disrupting the West End, disrupting what we see, so that stories like House of Ife and Red Pitch can be seen as plays that could be staged in the West End”.
It’s tempting to see these recent successes as something of a renaissance of black British theatre, with more productions and writers given the chance to adapt their work for the screen, but the future will determine just how much this watershed period – in the aftermath of the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd and BLM – helped create lasting change and equity in British theatre. Dismantling systemic racism is key to achieving true inclusion. As Cameron says, “I want longevity, I don’t want to be part of a fashion trend.”