In our latest interview, Matt Barton speaks to Michael Buffong, artistic director of Talawa, about their new digital series Tales from the Front Line, the future of theatre post-Covid, and Talawa’s upcoming 35th anniversary.
In the blizzard of ongoing global upheaval, some may have forgotten the widespread movement for change catalysed by the murder of George Floyd less than six months ago. This outcry deepened amidst the context of the Black community’s susceptibility to coronavirus. For Michael Buffong, artistic director of Talawa Theatre Company, this crisis remains as vitally important and urgently unavoidable as ever, inspiring a series of verbatim accounts from Black key workers on the front-line.
He describes conceiving Tales from the Front Line during lockdown, when proliferating interviews with NHS staff begged the question: “Where are the Black ones?”
“We were applauding the work of these front-line workers, and every time there’s an interview on TV or a poster, there were no Black people.” He became determined to commemorate their contribution, “otherwise when we look back you might not see any Black NHS workers, when the reality is most the NHS is Black.” The verbatim form has always been used to render a distinct reality to theatre, but it was especially important for Buffong that these experiences were recorded in their own words. As well as a way to engage stranded freelancers, it was “a recording of our history at this moment.”
The title seems itself a gesture towards this effort: with no specification of being ‘Black tales’, they’re essential to and inextricable from the front-line experience, rather than separated from it. The result is a variety of 10-minute short films which will initially live on Talawa’s website before ultimately transferring into longer stage pieces. Donations will go to the charity Black Minds Matter, with Black mental health issues compounding this emergency around cultural erasure and ignorance.
Despite this, there lacks a widespread concerted effort to promote Black stories like Talawa. Buffong adduces this to the reporting of the crisis: “We’re asked to support the NHS and we’re given essentially pictures of white NHS workers. It’s just who then goes ‘hold on, that doesn’t look right’, and wants to then tell those stories. If no-one else tells these stories, we’ll tell them.” He feels it’s incumbent upon Talawa to promote them, especially as they’re “relevant on a universal level”, hearing from teachers told it’s ‘business as usual’ while having to enforce hand-washing in schools lacking hot water or sanitiser.
Despite such inexplicable incompetence and injustice, he will “always be optimistic” about the capacity these stories have to transform the theatre landscape and society more broadly. “I think there is change already. I think Black Lives Matter has been a seismic event, made even more so by it happening in lockdown when there was nowhere else to go but confront these issues. I’m sure there are still people desperately trying to cling onto the status quo, but I think change has happened and will continue.” He hopes the second lockdown won’t distract from this earlier recognition, acknowledging it as “a body-blow” but believing “as humans, we will stand up again. We’re all questioning whether we have the energy to go through this again, but I think we do. I’m still optimistic about the human spirit as a force: it will continue to find its oxygen; that’s what we do.”
He hopes Tales audiences will“be moved by the stories and understand the contribution of Black workers to this country. My main drive is wanting people to understand we’re not always seeing the whole picture; the picture isn’t always just white.” This is part of a greater “change of consciousness” he hopes to inspire throughout the industry. He’s always believed Black representation on our stages has been “the easy part”, whereas offstage changes have severely lagged behind. “We want to see diversification of the decision-makers – of the people who get to decide what stories get told – and we’ve seen some excellent appointments of ADs recently which we need more of. Companies have been confronted with what they haven’t achieved in terms of diversity; they’ve realised they need to do something about it or they’ll be called out.”
Talawa isn’t being complacent either, accelerating their impact with unconscious bias training. They work with clients and individuals to make them realise there’s a problem, and then tailor a plan for change. He hopes theatres won’t default to conservative, easy, mainstream choices, as “the pandemic is no reason not to diversify from the top down. I hope we’re not going back to ‘we’re going to just do what we know because it sells’; that would be a tragic loss of an opportunity. If ever there’s a time for change, it’s now, so I hope people will commit to a much bolder evolution of their organisations rather than staying in their past.”
These aren’t fleeting motivations, but define the company’s forward direction. “It’s definitely important for us to document this moment. We’re still as passionate as ever about the stories we tell, and this has given us more forms.” They’re looking forward to plans to celebrate their 35th anniversary next year, with “big shows in the pipeline” and “an upcoming exciting Radio 4 project” involving scripts openly invited from Black British writers earlier this month.
There seems real hope, then, in a company leveraging theatre’s capacity for both social commentary and support; of organically reacting to the issues affecting its audiences; of preserving this historic moment and perpetuating lasting change, rather than settling for tokenistic or transient actions. Talawa’s resolve remains clear: no matter what, Black voices won’t be ignored or forgotten; their stories will still be told.
The first two films in Tales from the Front Line are streaming now. Visit the Talawa website for more details.
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