Black theatre in Britain is important to this country’s history. In the 1930s and 40s, it was overshadowed by America, to the extent that African American actors usually got any roles for black actors on British stages. Black British understudies had enough, and in 1948 got together and founded the Negro Theatre Company as a way to showcase their talents and to go on tour with their own productions. The same year, an influx of Caribbean immigrants started to arrive in the UK. Over the next 16 years, black majority churches, businesses and clubs were set up to give this new batch of black Brits a sense of community. New talent emerged in theatre, including Errol John and Barry Reckford, who were some of the first to have their own shows (Moon on a Rainbow Shawl and Flesh to a Tiger respectively) performed at the Royal Court with a black majority cast in 1958.
The black arts movement (BAM) created a major change for theatre during the 60s. By 1968, BAM was introduced to Britain from America by white director Ronald Reed. BAM had a powerful influence on its cousins across the pond, despite being culturally and radically different. Its strong views on racism and politics fuelled a negative relationship between blacks and the police in the UK, which is still apparent in many areas today.
With these new American plays, all-black productions and, later on, urban/street culture based plays, black actors were beginning to break into television and film. This included Rudolph Walker (Eastenders), Carmen Monroe (Desmond’s) and Norman Beaton (Mighty Quinn and Desmond’s) who are considered legends for their contribution to the development of black theatre during the 70s, 80s and 90s.
How is black theatre doing at the moment, though? Gail Babb, Education and Participation Officer at Talawa, one of Britain’s foremost black-led theatre companies, told me: “Black theatre is totally different from what it was 20-30 years ago. The world has changed and the fight is different. We just need more producers and fund-raisers to nurture and promote black theatre within the mainstream and give more chances.”
The National Theatre is currently showing The Amen Corner – an African American play set in Harlem, and is also hosting the platform event Walk in the Light to celebrate the contribution of black artists to British theatre. Actor David Harewood, who is participating in this event, said to The Telegraph that he “hopes positive messages portrayed on stage from this can extend to television screens”. This is why it’s important for black theatre companies to keep on growing, to help actors, writers, directors, producers and fundraisers to contribute to black theatre in a way that will improve the status of black media too.
Martin Shippen spoke to me on behalf of the National Theatre and shared its mission statement: “The National Theatre aspires to reflect in its repertoire the diversity of the nation’s culture. Our objective is to present a balanced artistic programme, staging around 20 productions a year from the whole of world drama, with a specific responsibility for the creation of new work and representing the widest range of voices. We also want to reach more people and broaden our audiences; our goal is a mixed programme that appeals across a range of audiences.” As Nicholas Hytner, Director of the National Theatre, has said: “It’s a great time to be a national theatre, and to rise to the challenge of living up to our name. We want to tell the stories that chart the way the nation is changing. We want to bring front-line reports from new communities and generations, and we want to see the present redefined in the context of the past.”
Eclipse Theatre Company is another company working to raise the profile of black-led theatre, especially for those who live outside London. The Sheffield-based company was part of the part of the Black Regional Initiative which, in the early 2000s, came together to help combat racism in the industry. Artistic Creative Director Dawn Walton is now focused on “Targeting non-regular theatre goers to mix and share the experience with those who go regularly for a more enjoyable experience.” She explained that “Trying to define black theatre is the reason why ‘black led’ theatre companies set up in the past failed to succeed.” Walton’s passion for the “equal representation of black theatre” was clear when I asked her how it could develop in the future: “If we are to leave a legacy for black theatre we need to nurture and develop writers to portray a true voice of what it is to be black and British today.” There are black communities all over the country so it is important to search for talent and present black theatre outside London, too:“This could be achieved by touring,” says Walton. “What is the point in showing a production for three weeks in one venue only for it to be off radar after that? From up north, we have helped boost audience numbers by 30% – more for some shows.”
Despite the advances made so far, black theatre is still in need of change. The “ghetto” stereotype that is often portrayed on the stage and in the media, alongside the fact African American theatre remains a dominant force in our country, overshadows the potential of black British theatre. With the help of Talawa, Eclipse and others, including writers such as Levi David Addai (Writer of E4’s hit show, Youngers), we are more able to portray a relevant and recognisable voice clearly into the mainstream. We need to keep on representing our own culture, improving its reputation within the mainstream and fighting to ensure the works of those before us weren’t in vain.
Photo: The National Theatre’s The Amen Corner. (c) Richard H Smith