Let’s talk about women playwrights of colour in theatre.
Recently there was public outrage over the lack of female playwrights in leading London Theatres and, rightly so. The numbers are shocking (read Victoria Sadler’s post here) – with some theatres found to have no female playwrights on their programme. People poured out on social media to show their anger at the bias (read: sexism) shown by these leading theatres. But as someone who works in theatre (and in the arts in general), these numbers were of no surprise. Theatres have always been skewed towards male playwrights. It only takes flicking through programmes of some of the national theatres to see how biased towards male playwrights they are. At first glance, you can be deceived. Some of the stories being staged seem to have a female perspective, and they might do. Except the writers are almost always male. And always white.
You know what’s worse than the representation of female playwrights? The representation of female playwrights of colour. The number often being zero. Or worse, one, with the playwright not even living in the UK. When we talk about the plight of female playwrights, we often forget about women of colour. The struggle is twice as hard. They not only have to fight sexism, but racism too. Of course, this is rarely overt racism or sexism. Micro-aggressions from directors, literary managers and producers mean that female playwrights of colour are made to jump through hoops with little success.
Women of colour who write for theatre are often told their work is too political. Literary Managers at these national theatres seem too afraid to put anything on that may make their audiences question the norm. ‘Our audiences are white middle-class women who won’t get your work’ is often code for, ‘You have too many non-white characters in your play’.
Writing schemes specifically targeting women of colour do exist but there are too many schemes that are merely ‘developing’ female playwrights of colour. These playwrights (women of colour) will always be developing to some theatres. Developing is code for ‘we think the quality is poor’ or ‘we don’t want to pay these women an actual wage’. I’ve recently been part of a project that tried to commission two very successful female playwrights of colour to do a development scheme. Neither of these women needed developing. What they needed and deserved was a proper commission with decent pay. Not a small expense fee for a development project. This isn’t the first time that established female playwrights of colour were treated as if they have little skill and, until theatres acknowledge their own biases it won’t be the last.
There are theatres who do engage with female writers of colour but you’ll notice that more often than not those playwrights live and work abroad. They are chosen over British women of colour as they are easier to market. Theatres will engage with playwrights who live in Asia and Africa and even the United States as they don’t need to do much. More often than not these writers will already have a following and the theatres don’t have to put the work in and properly engage with or find writers in the UK. The problem with showcasing work from international playwrights of colour, is that their work is then seen to be representative of all British playwrights of colour. I’m not saying that theatres shouldn’t put on work from international artists. Far from it. I’m saying that it becomes a problem when the only non-white work that is showcased is from international artists of colour. It feeds into the exoticisation and the ‘foreignness’ of these plays and playwrights and, further feeds into the narrative that writers that live and work here in the UK aren’t good enough.
There are a few initiatives that are changing this. Eclipse Theatre, Talawa Theatre Company and Tamasha Theatre are some of the companies that are working to challenge that narrative. They are giving female playwrights of colour the skills needed to effectively engage with national theatres. Sadly, until theatres own up and start thinking about who they programme, their programmes will remain white and male.