Blog: On the importance of Black theatre

In the 90s, I remember seeing the Posse and the Bibi Crew at Theatre Royal Stratford East, and being amazed at all that creativity on stage and that all these inspiring people were Black! These were collectives of performers such as Judith Jacobs, Janet Kay with Suzanne Packer, Michael Buffong, Brian Bovell and Roger Griffiths who co-wrote, directed and produced their own plays. They were showcasing their ideas and identities on stage and the audience ‘got it’. These were sell-out performances, where the audiences celebrated the stories and voices of the Black community with these talented artists… and then it all went quiet.

I didn’t understand what had happened. I still saw the artists, on television, in film and on the stage, but nothing as powerful as seeing all of them on stage together. What happened? They were there and then suddenly they weren’t. These talented artists had inspired me and shown me that I was of value – that this little mixed-race girl from Gravesend, Kent, who was too afraid to speak to anybody, who didn’t look anybody in the eye, was important.

Since then I’ve come a long way. Now, here I am in 2017, no longer afraid but taking centre-stage working as a theatremaker – a BAME female artist, if you wish. And I’m still asking the questions: where is my story, where is my voice, where am I on your stage?

I’m not the only one thinking about this either. As I explained to Arts Council England when I applied for funding for my play Not Bound Within, many Black women feel alienated from the Arts and believe theatre is not for them. They have expressed to me how rejected they feel at not seeing themselves on stage – at not seeing women from their own backgrounds telling their stories, as voices which are not heard in the theatre.

So, my current play Not Bound Within places the experiences of Black women past and present at the heart of the storytelling. It tells the story of Venus, a young Black woman, who is in the middle of a crisis. She is fighting with the world and feels she is losing. She is in the darkest of places, and we can all relate to this because at some time in our lives we have been there. Those feelings of helplessness, vulnerability and loneliness are overwhelming. And as Venus experiences this intense state of mind, the Hottentot Venus – Saartjie Baartman – appears. Baartman was an African woman who was exhibited as a ‘freak’ in the early 1800s and is an important historical character for Black British History whose legacy still resonates today.

What follows in the play is a story of sexual degradation and economic exploitation, as these two women, Venus and Saartjie, battle with their pasts, their present and their unknown futures.

With this story I wanted to forge a different approach to theatremaking, one that I had never been part of before. I decided to see myself reflected in every aspect from page to stage. I entrusted my script to a highly skilled dramaturg-director who understood the nuances of the Black woman’s experience because she is one herself. I auditioned a wide range of talented Black actresses (there is so much talent, no excuses any more please) and had the joy of selecting three incredibly different Black women, who gave their all to the rehearsal process and shone on stage. And then the cherry on top of this amazing pie was the audience: a mixed and diverse group of theatre-goers who wanted to see my play succeed. And boy, it did!

I have begun to answer my own questions with a battle cry. Our history as Black women is either erased or told by others, and yet theatre is made for telling everybody’s stories. That’s what I’m told and I believe it. My route to the stage was not conventional, and because of that I feel I’m slightly behind in the race. I was never any good at sports! We all know the cross-country stories. But I’m in this race forever. Theatremaking is my world. It is a craft I have developed and continue to share with others – as a writer and actor, a young actors’ director and drama education specialist.

I want to write stories which prove that my experiences as a woman of colour are valid human experiences that all kinds of people will be interested in. I want to create roles for Black women that challenge and excite them, instead of seeing them playing nurses and cleaners! And I want to create work which encourages Black women through the doors of each and every theatre in the land.