Standing on the shoulders of giants

“So many have told us how they find themselves in a theatre, particularly the West End, and looked around to see no other black audience members. That’s the mirror raised to the decades-old dilemma of UK theatre: your audience is immutably 50-plus, middle-class and white.”





by Nick Awde

This October saw Black History Month launch across the nation just as Alan Bennett’s new play ended a successful run in London. There’s a link, namely the Bridge Theatre’s production of Allelujah! had a cast that featured a high proportion of black actors.

Admittedly we’re not talking about the most adventurous of casting since Bennett’s allegory for our times is set in a hospital, but it’s highly pertinent to note that of the actors involved – all consummate performers – some of their number represent the pioneering Windrush-era generation who broke down barriers of prejudice from the 1950s onwards.

In a play offering an unusually wide age-range of characters, the impressive younger cast members included Nadine Higgin, Nicola Hughes, Sacha Dhawan and Manish Gandhi. Their seniors, however, delivered not only top-notch performances but also seriously impressive CVs.

Cleo Sylvestre, for example, was the first British-born black actress in a leading role at the National Theatre in Peter Nichols’ The National Health in 1969. Jacqueline Chan, born in Trinidad, was one of the few people with Chinese heritage working regularly in British television and cinema in the 1960s and 70s. Louis Mahoney was born in Gambia and co-founded the Black Theatre Workshop with Mike Phillips in 1976.

They are representatives of the generation who began their careers in theatre during the 1940s and 50s but realised that the job also came with a commitment to campaigning, often as part of Equity, for racial equality within the acting profession and beyond. Many have been recognised with MBEs and OBEs for their efforts in creating a legacy of national awareness that now has a painful resonance in 2018, since the 70th anniversary of Windrush has been tarnished by the UK government’s refusal to bestow citizenship on many of those it invited to rebuild the nation.

That’s hardly an outcome Windrush theatre practitioners had worked for. They enriched our culture, our society. On the stage, TV, radio and film they proved the benefit of the new voices and approaches that the migration experience brings, while offstage/off-set they fought for awareness and equality and so benefited the entire nation.

Black History Month is a good point for us to step back and understand what that legacy has brought us. As early as the late 1950s the Royal Court Theatre started its long association with black new writing by promoting the likes of Errol John, Barry Reckord and Wole Soyinka, encouraging their work as a vehicle for the fight for inclusivity in all parts of society.

As the whole of the UK underwent transformation, self-empowerment followed. Theatre agent Pearl Connor-Mogotsi and actor Edric Connor founded the Negro Theatre Workshop which paved the way for black-run companies during the 1970s and 80s such as Temba Theatre Company, Black Theatre Cooperative (renamed Nitro), Carib Theatre Company, Theatre of Black Women, Asian company Tara Arts, Black Mime Theatre and Talawa, founded by Yvonne Brewster, Carmen Munroe, Mona Hammond and Inigo Espejel.

Their mission was to safeguard, promote and develop black theatre, in places where the Windrush generation mixed with the younger generations to create learning centres never seen before in our island. After the 1990s, things were evolving into projects such as Black Theatre Live, an eight-theatre national effort led by Tara Arts, and the National Theatre’s Black Plays Archive, launched by Kwame Kwei-Armah (now director of the Young Vic theatre). The job was done.

But it wasn’t. As actror/director Clarke Peters has pointed out, the current lack of opportunities for black talent in the UK is driving many to the US – ironically creating another wave of migration. Meanwhile, white decision-makers in the arts are, too regularly for comfort, baffled by the concepts of quotas, positive discrimination and colour-blind casting somehow managing to sow confusion whether they support or oppose.

Out of our exhibition All the World’s a Stage: Black Theatre in the UK from Windrush Onwards, at London’s Draper Hall, three main visitor reactions so far have emerged.

The first is that there are still successes across the country, exemplified by the continued artistic and campaigning work of Talawa and Tara Arts amongst many others and also the work of venues like the Young Vic, the Bush and the National Theatre.

Secondly, audience. So many have told us how they find themselves in a theatre, particularly the West End, and looked around to see no other black audience members. That’s the mirror raised to the decades-old dilemma of UK theatre: your audience is immutably 50-plus, middle-class and white.

And third is a question: why aren’t black British plays part of the national canon? We’re fortunate to be able to point to the new Black Plays Archive at the National, set up in 2016 by Kwei-Armah – and yet inclusion in the BPA can’t guarantee national acceptance of breakthrough plays like Errol John’s Moon on a Rainbow Shawl and Barry Reckord’s Skyvers.

We hope the exhibition will help towards awareness of the importance of the contribution of black theatre. We also hope it will help the discussion of why things like diverse casting don’t translate into diverse audiences, how to translate the sell-out audiences of an Oliver Samuels’ UK tour into ‘mainstream’ theatre, gain black British plays their rightful place in the national canon, how to hire and train black critics, create equal opportunities for under-represented lighting designers, set and costume designers and stage managers, tackle under-representation at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and our international festivals, under-representation in puppet theatre even…

Whatever we do, however we do it, we will always be standing on the shoulders of giants: the Windrush theatre generation whose legacy continues to be as relevant today as it ever was.

Nick Awde is the International Editor of The Stage newspaper, Director of the UK Centre of the International Theatre Institute (UNESCO) and Director of the upcoming Other National Theatre.

  • ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE: BLACK THEATRE IN THE UK FROM WINDRUSH ONWARDS, an exhibition at Draper Hall by Nick Awde & Isabel Appio for Bridge of Voices/Draper Together/International Theatre Institute (UNESCO), runs throughout October.

Streets Paved with Gold by Victor Richards

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