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“That which is not articulated does not exist” – what the mainstream owes Black Theatre

The Arts Council’s Sustained Theatre initiative is a partnership with the black theatre sector established in 2005 to carry out the recommendations of Baroness Lola Young’s ‘Whose Theatre?’ Report on the Sustained Theatre Consultation. (Historical note: The black theatre sector in London, desiring creative autonomy and permanence, had lobbied for its own flagship theatre for decades, with collective hopes raised and dashed many times over. The sense of frustration was expressed by actor Hugh Quarshie who was quoted as saying, ‘Are we having the agenda set for us by established British Theatre tradition?

We measure ourselves by what has gone before. But do I care whether the three sisters get to Moscow?’ In July 2005 the Arts Council withdrew support for Talawa Theatre Company’s nine million pound project to revamp the Westminster Theatre in central London. A protest meeting was organised and held at the Africa Centre, Covent Garden. In response ACE ring-fenced the remaining capital funds, an inquiry by Baroness Lola Young was commissioned and carried out. A report titled ‘Whose Theatre?’ followed.)

One of the recommendations focuses on encouraging accessible black theatre archives and critical debates on the development of black and Asian British theatre. Baroness Young wrote: "There is now no excuse for being unaware that the history and the presence in Britain of people of African, Asian, Caribbean and East Asian descent stretches back over several centuries. Yet, in spite of that long and complex set of histories – many of which involve arts and cultural exchange and appropriation – today’s cultural institutions still feel awkward about engaging fully with the descendants of those early settlers… The artistic landscape has changed due to the magnitude of human effort made by arts practitioners of African, Asian, Caribbean and East Asian descent. But real embedded transformation has proved elusive." (One of those consulted for the report said: ‘We do not just need to record our past but revisit it, to show its relevance to our current situation.’)

Professor Paul Gilroy makes a similar but wider point when he argues that the arts have a lot to gain by acknowledging the rough ‘conviviality’ of cross cultural exchanges that occur at the base of society:

"I want to suggest that largely undetected (and this is a good thing) either by governments or media, in ways that actually go back to the legacy of the 1970s, migrants, immigrants, their descendents in this country, might be revealed to have generated some more positive possibilities than the melancholic ones. Alongside all those usual tales of crime and racial conflict there are some other varieties of interaction here in this city [London] and in other cities particularly, that have developed in a more organic way, let’s say."

"Our civic life, I think we can say, has been endowed with that vibrant multi-culture that won the Olympics, but we don’t always value it, they valued it at that moment but it was unusual to do so. We certainly don’t use that idea, or celebrate that development in ways that we should." (Paul Gilroy, ‘Britishness, Multiculturalism and Culture – Where Next?’, Arts Council Diversity seminar, Tate Modern, Starr Auditorium, 3 May 2006)

We need to be able to pick out pivotal moments when Gilroy’s ‘conviviality’ produced something unique and enduring. One of Sustained Theatre’s successes has been to help fund playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah’s Black Theatre Archive project. The investigation, based at the National Theatre Studio, has so far uncovered over 400 African, Caribbean and Black British plays premiered in the UK in the last sixty years. The project is now archiving the scripts and producing audio recordings of extracts from selected works.

Kwei-Armah is aware of the dangers of rendering the contribution of black dramatists invisible, and of the need to resituate key figures and movements inside the mainstream of British theatre. He warns: "that which is not articulated does not exist – we have been really bad at articulating the links between what could be seen as a peripheral activity and its impact on the mainstream."

He gives an example from his own experience: "Mike Leigh told me he wrote Two Thousand Years (2005) after seeing my play Elmina’s Kitchen (2003) but transformed it from being a black family into a Jewish one. How many other artists of stature have been to see black plays and narratives that have gone on to inspire their own art? I think there is proof of that. Even though we are small in numbers we punch well above our weight, and in ways that are far bigger than you recognize. Academics should be measuring that and putting it into the mix." (Kwame Kwei-Armah, interview with the author, 20 March 2010)

To make the point Kwei-Armah picks out the centrality of the work of playwright Barry Reckord to the course of postwar British Theatre. Reckord came from Jamaica in the 1950s to study at Cambridge. His first play, written at university, entitled Flesh to a Tiger, was staged at the Royal Court in 1958. (Flesh to a Tiger starred Cleo Laine and was directed by Tony Richardson, fresh from directing the Royal Court première of Look back In Anger.)

Flesh to a Tiger was followed in 1960 by You in Your Small Corner. [25] Reckord’s contemporaries included Caryl Churchill, Edward Bond, John Arden and Arnold Wesker. Ann Jellicoe, (who wrote The Knack), directed Skyvers, Reckord’s 1963 seminal portrayal of alienated and brutalised white working class schoolboys up against the authorities.

Or was it? The play’s central figure, Cragge, was played by David Hemming in the Royal Court premiere.26 All of the characters in Skyvers are white. Yet originally Reckord conceived the play as having black protagonists, but apparently black actors could not be found to fill the roles. So Skyvers was adapted to a white working class narrative instead. [27]

As it stood, Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington described Skyvers as

a devastating account by a young Jamaican writer of life in what would now be called a ‘bog-standard’ London comprehensive. Other dramatists, such as Nigel Williams in Class Enemy, went on to explore the failure of the system to cope with those at the bottom of the heap. But Reckord got there first. [28]

Skyvers had a huge impact at the time, but is now largely forgotten, and certainly has not entered the British theatre repertoire, unlike Bond, Churchill and even Wesker’s work. However Kwei-Armah reports that

the first play that David Hare saw at the Royal Court was Skyvers. Hare told me that ‘I can’t tell you the influence it had on me.’ This is our state of the nation playwright seeing Skyvers and thinking ‘Wow – this is what I want to do’.

Reckord played a key role in driving forward British theatre of the 1960s, showing a way – through heightened language – towards an authentic portrayal of working class consciousness. But mostly we are a long way from acknowledging and expressing such an integrated vision of key moments that switched the tracks. Kwei-Armah decries the status quo in which

‘white’ work is universal and to be preserved, whereas our work is only instrumental, to be shown once and then thrown away. That is a tenet of racism. Black plays can be universal and socially specific at the same time.

He makes the wider point that to gain authenticity those writers wanting to describe working class experience learned to see through ‘a black lens’. From his research Kwei-Armah pinpoints the 1980s as the most influential period of black theatre in Britain:

The socially political work of the Black Theatre Co-op, Temba, Talawa and those companies firing in the early 1980s – they were big works. They not only employed the leading writers of the day – Farrukh Dhondy and Michael Abbensetts – but they were also training the best directors and designers, who are working today in the mainstream... A lot of guys who are now part of the establishment and honoured were taking a lot from black theatre at the time.

Playwright David Edgar acknowledged this viewpoint when he said of the role of Black and Asian theatre in Britain that ‘Taken as a whole... this canon adds up to a considerable intervention in British theatre, and provides a particular and perhaps unique picture of the making of multicultural Britain.’29 This creative and innovative exploration of the tensions of inner city life, accessed through a ‘black lens’ can be identified in the currents running through the best playwrights emerging today. Kwei-Armah uses the example of contemporary playwright Ché Walker to make his point:

If today I look at writers like Ché Walker, white writers who are choosing to use what I would call black techniques for their rather cutting edge work – using Hip Hop rhythms and Hip Hop narratives and attitudes as a defining factor in their dialogue exchanges and how they construct narratives. Che is a wonderful example of that, using a black idiom to look at the white working class experience. Diversity is absolutely integral to the voice in his plays. [30]