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Breaking Down the Colour Bar in Theatreland

 

By Jo Peart

 

Is it important to have black theatre? Well I guess that depends on who you ask. For me black theatre has always been a way for me to engage and feel connected with my culture in a way that I was not able to do in every day life.

 

Black theatre is absolutely essential as a means to celebrate what is individual and special about our heritage, a channel for an authentic or at least different voice.

 

David Skillman the artistic director of the African American Shakespeare Company once remarked that what keeps us separated is not knowing about the other, not understanding each other and that there's an absolute need for

Black Theatre, for Asian -theatre, for -- whatever kind of theatre.

 

So why is it that until three years ago in Britain no Black British playwright had ever had a play tread the boards of a West End theatre?

 

Four years ago was also the first time the West End had its first Black British man director, when Clint Dyer dazzled the critics with the musical, The Big Life.

 

Do we as a group not have the skills required to put on a successful production in the heart of theatre-land? To fill an auditorium night after night?

 

I am of the opinion that skill is not the issue with such talented writers such as Debbie Tucker Green (who recently showcased Trade at the Soho Theatre and received critical acclaim in  2005 for Stoning Mary) Kwame Kwei-Armah and Courttia Newland, Philip Hedley and Nicholas Kentto to name but a few. 

 

So why has it taken so long?

 

There is no denying that there are a number of visible and invisible barriers which prevent black people in general from visiting the theatre.

 

Make no mistake about it, British theatre remains predominantly white - and that is behind the scenes as well as on stage. There is no other place in London which I visit that I am so aware of the colour of my skin.

 

However, because I'm an ardent fan of the theatre these experiences did not  put me off but I can clearly see how it would deter others.

 

There are also a number of social and economic reasons why many black people do not visit a theatre even when the production is black. The cost of a night out at the theatre can be astronomical - it can be up to ten times the cost of renting a DVD and that is just for one good seat.

 

It is a risk that many people who have never been to the theatre before regardless of their race are not prepared to take.

 

Access to information is also a fundamental obstacle.  If the black media that we access does not actively promote black theatre then how can we expect it to go beyond the fringes and into the mainstream?

 

It was Kwame Kwei-Armah’ s play Elminia’s Kitchen which broke the mold and brought a more culturally diverse audience to a West End Theatre.

 

Kwame’s position this at the time was clear “Somehow we're all so tribal that they'll just go, 'Oh, that's one for the Black audiences, so we can miss that one.' "So I decided to do it, hoping that my Casualty profile might do something to help overcome that and allow this play to go out around the country and to be seen by more people."

 

In short, it was time to test whether we were finally ready to "break the glass ceiling of having a black British play in the West End.

 

Whether or not the glass ceiling has been broken remains to be seen. The successes of 2003 and the momentum following Elemina Kitchen and The Big Life seem to have stalled.

 

With the on-going running of Daddy Cool, which depicts an urban youth experience and staring former pop stars Harvey and Javine, Black theatre programming is still very much the responsibly of fringe theatres such as the Tricycle Theatre, Stratford East and Oval house.

 

The only way we can hope to bring black stories into the mainstream is to go to the theatre more and support black productions better.

 

Personally I can’t help but to think the window of opportunity provided by the Big Life & Elmina Kitchen was open only for a short time, and that it is far easier for West End producers to stick with the tried and tested formula.

 

Producing black plays incorporate taking risks with black theatre but then I have always been a pessimist.

 

Jo Peart is The New Black Magazine's theatre expert.

 

Please e-mail comments to comments@thenewblackmagazine.com

 

 

 

 

 

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