It was as I was watching the excellent Br’er Cotton at Theatre 503 that this hit me – why are so many plays on the Black experience US imports? It seems unfair to burden this wonderful play examining black masculinity as if it is a criticism of that specific production as it isn’t. Rather, it was what triggered an observation that when it comes to looking at racism and what it is to be black, we are currently in a phase of importing US stories rather than encouraging and platform black British writers.
My favourite play from last year, An Octoroon, falls into that category too. Again, an extraordinary production that has already sold out on its transfer to the National Theatre (I’m intrigued to see how Ned Bennett adapts the show for the Dorfman). It is a terrific production. I loved it – it’s radical and unflinching. But it is not a British play.
Then beyond that, there was the wonderful One Night in Miami at the Donmar which, again, looked at racism through the experiences of such famous American black men as Ali, Malcolm X and Sam Cooke. And similarly, Katori Hall who not only penned The Mountaintop (I curse the fact that I missed this) but who is also now writing the book for the new musical hitting the West End based on the life of Tina Turner. Lots of great plays – all American imports.
Now, it’s probably because I’ve been reading a lot of Reni Eddo-Lodge recently, but I feel this is problematic in so many ways. It is concerning to see black stories largely through the American lens, not just as it marginalises British black creatives but also because we’re marginalising British black experiences and, implicitly, understating racism in British society. By focusing on the States there is an implicit message that their stories are more dramatic, more worthy, and that racism is more American.
So, what is going wrong?
I was pleased that when I spoke about this on Twitter, Jake Orr, producer at Theatre 503, got in touch and said that in a recent talk around Br’er Cotton, director Roy Alexander Weise spoke about how he has had to direct American plays because there is so little in the way of Black British writing telling POC stories. And he referred to the subject again, frustrated, in a recent Evening Standard interview.
And all this angers me too because what is the purpose of theatre if it is not to engage with their wider audiences and reflect pressing issues in society around them? I appreciate some theatres are doing this, and I applaud them, but it is a concern when the material they must work with to consider racism is American-based.
And you can take that even further when the biggest theatrical phenomenon right now is Hamilton – a play that also looks at racism and ‘othering’ but, again, is an American creation. The demand is there for these plays – you’ve only got to look at the popularity of the shows mentioned, as well as works such as Barber Shop Chronicles (from Nigerian writer Inua Ellams) and The Jungle.
But we are clearly not supporting Black creatives or challenging the institutional structures within theatre and wider society that prevent British Black writers from becoming engaged and excited by theatre, and which continue to discriminate against those who are trying to break through.
And whilst we are throwing logs on this fire, let’s double down on the gender issues here too.
Every single play I referred to above looks at Black masculinity and the Black male experience. Same for Misty that has just opened at Bush too. The only exception being the Tina Turner musical. When we look at Blackness in theatre, it is predominantly, if not almost entirely, through a male lens. So not only do we desperately need British Black voices, this is even more acute for British Black women, as well as other women from minority ethnic groups.
Take Black Men Walking, for example – one of the few plays written by a British writer, Even that has the male experience front and centre. And even when we do get stories that focus on Black women, more often than not they’re coming from debbie tucker green – as if we are only allowed one British Black woman writer – or White writers such as Tony Kushner who is behind Caroline, or Change.
And I particularly felt this marginalisation of Black women when watching Hamilton – a musical that famously switches the race and ethnicity of the White figures from history, using it to platform and challenge ongoing prejudice against immigrants and People of Colour. Only apparently the line was drawn at gender flipping too. The show is more than happy to challenge prejudice and discrimination against Black men and other men of colour, but there was no way we were going to be allowed to see a Black woman playing George Washington or Lafeyette.
And the marginalisation of Black Women was even evident in Br’er Cotton where the mother in the play was depicted as reticent and fearful of the violence of Black Lives Matter, the impression being given that BLM was built on the fury of righteous anger of Black men, erasing the vital role women played in the creation of that movement.
Anyway, I am digressing a little but hopefully i’;m making the point. We need greater representation from British Black artists and especially British Black women. We need their stories, we need their testaments, otherwise we are increasingly becoming a satellite platform for American issues.
And, let’s be frank, Britain is racist and CLEARLY has extreme issues with racism and othering right now. Such a huge issue in our society is going unaddressed, unrecognised and unacknowledged by British theatre – an industry which already has its own issues with White elitism both on stage and in its audiences.
The biggest cultural moment of the year to date has unequivocally been Stormzy calling out the Tories at the Brits. What has British theatre got to match that? Right now, nothing. We shouldn’t just be ashamed; we should be coming together to actively tear down these barriers and ongoing discrimination in our industry. If not, obsolescence and irrelevance beckons