The Renaissance of Black British Theatre
Living in London brings about many privileges. One of my favorites is having easy accessibility to the dynamic art and culture scene. I have been a lover of musicals for years. But I had never thought about watching any plays that were not big. Last year I made a conscious effort to start watching more plays. This was due to an increase in the productions on the Black British theatre scene. This year playhouses across London showcased many stories written by African, Caribbean and Black British playwrights. I am lucky enough to have seen Barbershop Chronicles, Nine Nights, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, Misty and The Convert.
Witnessing the stage at the National Theatre come alive with the story of Barbershop Chronicles was amazing. It compelled my friend and I to commit to seeing a production written by a Black playwright every few months. The funny and vibrant play was heavily centred around the barbershop experience for black men. The actors were equipped with various African accents and odd sentences of pidgin English were dropped into the conversation. Yet I remember thinking if the dialogue was comprehensible by many in the audience. We had a story taking us to several corners of Africa and the diaspora community. However, the predominantly white audience did not reflect those who were portraying it.
Expectations of Inclusivity
The scheme would not be in place if it was not for the stories now on stage being appealing and relevant to such audiences. Nowadays we talk a lot about the need for diversity on all platforms. But it is more so the significance of representation that has got a lot of young black people going to the theatre. Actor, Riz Ahmed commented on the subject of inclusivity on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah saying, “I don’t like to talk about ‘diversity’. I feel it sounds like an added extra…It’s about representation. And representation is absolutely fundamental in terms of what we expect from our culture, and from our politics. We all want to feel represented, we all want to feel seen and heard and valued.”
With representation comes the ability to see a true reflection of yourself. In turn leading to more diverse stories being told, covering a wide range of issues and cultures which many of us who aren’t used to seeing ourselves on stage can identify with. It is opening up a whole new world that never felt welcoming before. It goes further than just seeing black faces on stage. There is also something about seeing fellow black men and women enjoying the same art you are about to witness. It all ties into the overall experience of theatre-going.
This renaissance of Black British theatre has contributed to much pride and enjoyment within the Black community here. However, there is still the risk of reducing these plays to “black plays.” A label I am careful not to apply to any of the plays I’ve seen. Are they portraying black characters, black lives and African or Caribbean cultures? Yes, but that does not mean that the ethnicity of the audience is dependent on the stories.
It is no secret that often those in charge in the entertainment and creative industries do not believe that black productions or initiatives sell. But if there is anything I’ve come to see having gone to these plays, is that this notion is far from the truth. From multiple sold-out performances to extended runs, it’s very evident that these plays telling African, Caribbean and Black British stories are all successful in their own right. Not only are they popular amongst Black British viewers, but it is also clear that our stories are palatable with the general public as the audiences still remain predominantly white. While they might focus on traditions and cultures of our communities, there are the common threads featured that tie everyone together, whether it be love, relationships or family.
2018 was a year of firsts when it came to the representation of black voices in entertainment. We had the first black superhero film. We had the first black screenwriter win at the Oscars. And now with her play Nine Nights, Natasha Gordon became the first Black British female playwright to have a play in the West End. While it’s hard to believe this even several months later, it’s just the start for Black British theatre as more young Black British playwrights, producers and actors are getting their foot in the door. With this comes more spectators like myself. We have the opportunity to see parts of our identity positively and entertainingly represented on stage, and our artistic palettes widened.
Written by Aisha Rimi