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Plays

… And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

In Marcus Gardley’s And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi (2007), the world of the Civil War provides the setting in which Greek myth, talking trees, singing rivers, and a moonwalking Jesus combine to interrogate the politics of sex and the body.

By disregarding and distorting sacrosanct narratives and images of Christianity and American history, Gardley pushes us to rethink the lessons and limitations of these institutions vis-à-vis our contemporary moment. His inventive and brazen formal approach not only prompts such re-evaluations, but also frames an affecting story whose essence is one of longing, redemption, and forgiveness.

Antebellum

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Robert O’Hara’s Antebellum bridges continents to highlight the intractability of love and the power of desire. Set in 1939, amid the cabarets and concentration camps of prewar Berlin and the plantations of post-Civil War Atlanta, the play uses seemingly unrelated historical events to explore the dynamic interplay of race, sexuality, and religion in the production of identity.

Antebellum employs a complex yet stirring hodgepodge of dramaturgical techniques, ranging from naturalistic to Brechtian, that evidence the formal complexities and heterodoxy of post-black dramaturgy.

Even more than he did in his earlier play Insurrection: Holding History (1996), O’Hara seamlessly melds the personal and the political to create a world that, by his own admission, is intimately connected to his own ‘relationship to life and to love’ but remains expansive and generous enough that his audiences might recognize and learn something about their own.

Belong

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Election lost, speeches made and controversy stirred – Kayode’s hiding. He’s not even answering the door to the cleaner and Rita is not going to start getting out the Hoover in her designer heels. Escaping the political heat in London he flees to Nigeria – a British MP and a self-made man. Once there, he gets caught up in a whole new power game. Bola Agbaje’s satirical play questions our notion of home.

Belong was originally produced by the Royal Court and Tiata Fahodzi at the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court in April 2012 before transferring to Theatre Local, Peckham.

Black Diamond: The Years the Locusts Have Eaten

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

In Black Diamond (2007), J. Nicole Brooks interrogates contemporary connections and discontinuities between the Africans in Liberia and African Americans in the United States. Set in 1999, the play opens in the middle of the second Liberian civil war, which eventually resulted in the overthrow of brutal despot Charles Taylor and his arrest as a war criminal. At issue in this drama is the question of what should be the responsibility of the United States to this war-torn African state racked by genocidal atrocities and human rights violations.

After all, Liberia has a unique bond to the United States, beginning in 1827 when former black slaves from the United States attempted to settle Liberia. At the centre of her drama, Brooks places an African American journalist sent by the BBC to cover the war story. As Americans and the world turn a seemingly deaf ear toward the suffering in Liberia, this journalist faces his own life-altering questions as to his duty to his profession and his obligation as a black man to this intra-racial conflict.

Fast-paced and episodic in structure, Black Diamond’s eclectic form also rubs up against convention, assaulting the audience’s senses as moments of flashback clash against burlesque enactments, docudrama narrativization, and rap music interludes. The play’s structure informs its content. The contrasts and incongruities in style underscore the contradictory cultural politics at play within this catastrophic African struggle. By depicting rebel soldiers that associate their own brutality and swagger with the urban cool of African American hip hop, Brooks’ play showcases the complications and ambiguities of black cultural traffic, the flow and, importantly, the friction of black imagery.

With its structural hybridity and diverse representations of blackness, Black Diamond enacts the post-black.

Blackta

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Welcome to the world's most unusual talent contest. Behind the scenes, competitors are laughing and brawling, parading their hopes and fears in front of each other, their loves and losses. But there's a bigger fight to be had on stage: who's going to win? The black, the yellow or the brown guy?

This hilariously biting satire by Nathaniel Martello-White exposes the highs and lows of making it as a black actor - a 'blackta'.

Of the play, the Stage wrote ‘Nathaniel Martello-White’s debut play is concerned with more than just the various hurdles faced by black actors; it also encompasses broader themes of race, identity and masculinity. The play rattles along, a little bit like Beckett on amphetamines, presenting a frantic hamster wheel world in which its characters - named for their skin tone: black, brown, yellow - are forever being tested...The play has a lot to say and for much of the time it does so with humour and verve’.

The first production of Blackta opened in the Maria at the Young Vic on 26 October 2012.

Bulrusher

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Eisa Davis’s Pulitzer Prize- nominated play Bulrusher (2006), set in 1955, is a coming-of-age narrative in which the title character, abandoned as a baby and taken in by strangers, navigates a world where she finds herself increasingly outside the mainstream of Boonville, California, the small country town where she was raised.

When a black visitor from Alabama arrives in the town, Bulrusher begins to confront the norms and attitudes that she and those in her town take for granted. Through her encounter with this young black woman from the south, Bulrusher comes into a new sexual and racial consciousness. Eventually, she even learns the identity of her mother and father. Bulrusher undergoes her own kind of psychological, intellectual, and emotional homecoming throughout the play – although she never leaves Boonville.

Through Bulrusher, Davis asks us to consider how we might locate home, its significance in the making of identity, and who constitutes ‘family’ in the first place: those with whom we are reared or those who accept us without condition or pretense.

Bulrusher received its world premiere at Urban Stages/Playwrights’ Preview Productions in New York in March 2006.

Category B

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Category B is a sharp and hard-hitting play about the brutal power structures of prison life. It is set in a Category B prison, where all offenders are placed after they are first convicted: it is tough, and dangerous, and compelling.

Inside C Wing, Thames Gate Prison, it’s the screws that have the keys, but all too often it’s the prisoners that have the power. Saul is the con in charge: prisoners follow his rules, the officers turn the occasional blind eye, and everything runs smoothly. But his number two position is vacant, new inmates are flooding in, and things are getting tense. Meanwhile Angela is training her replacement, a crash course in keeping the aggression of an overcrowded ward at bay. And new inmate Rio is ready prove he’s as tough as the rest of them, but the volatile Errol is keeping an eye on him, for reasons of his own. Category B offers a chilling insight into the treachery and manipulation that prop up the prison walls from the inside.

Williams's play was first performed as part of the ‘Not Black and White’ season at the Tricycle Theatre, London, in 2009.

Clubland

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Clubland is a south London drama of sexual politics, which confronts pressing questions of race, cultural identity and the roles in which society casts young men and women.

Although Ben is married to Denise he's still on the pull, Kenny's looking for someone who's "right", Ade's with Sandra but playing the field, and Nate's a proud new father. The play follows this group of young men and women in and out of the clubs, as they discuss each other's lives, who has slept with whom and whether black or white people are better in bed.

With shrewd insight and a sharp ear for dialogue, Williams examines the mechanisms of race, discrimination and sexual stereotypes, and the power they have over people’s lives.

Clubland premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in 2001.

Detaining Justice

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Detaining Justice is an interrogatory play about illegal immigration and race, in which the urgent issues are brought to life with humour and compassion.

Justice Ncube is locked in a cell, his asylum application pending. If he is deported back to Zimbabwe, he faces the violent retribution of the regime he resisted. His sister Grace is desperate to help, but after trying authorities, God, and even the bed of an immigration enforcement officer, she finds nothing but dead ends. All she can suggest is that he goes back home. Assigned to Justice’s case is Mr Cole, a celebrity prosecution lawyer who is ill at ease in his new job in the cramped office of the Immigration Advisory Centre, and haunted by his last big case. The system is impenetrable and obscure, and there’s no way out for Justice.

In the offices of the immigration authorities, inside the detention centres, and out in the world where illegal immigrants are working, Agbaje examines Britain’s tangled immigration system and the lives of those who slip through the cracks.

Detaining Justice was first performed as part of the ‘Not Black and White’ season at the Tricycle Theatre, London, in 2009.

Although a few black actors and playwrights had been at work in Britain since early in the twentieth century (Kobina Sekeye's The Blinkards was published in 1907) and black people had fought for Britain in both world wars, it was not until the 1950s that economic need led to mass migration from the non-white colonies and provided the beginnings of a community out of which ‘black theatre’ was to emerge as a term in general usage two decades later.

Documentation of the earlier period is imperfect; historian and journalist C. L. R. James adapted his work on the Haitian revolution into a theatrical pageant, The Black Jacobins (known at its 1936 première as Toussaint L'Ouverture), starring Paul Robeson, who appeared in several plays in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s. A small group of black actors, including Robeson, performed at the leftwing Unity Theatre, out of which came the London Negro Repertory Theatre (1943), probably the first but short-lived attempt to found a British black theatre company. Black productions visited – from the United States, Anna Lucasta (1947, 1952 and 1954), The Jazz Train (1955), A Raisin in the Sun (1959), The Amen Corner (1965) and, from South Africa, King Kong (1961) – but of more immediate use to the fledgling local movement were the experimental Sunday night programmes at the Arts Theatre, Royal Court and Tower Theatre organized by Pearl Connor, the first black theatrical agent and producer in England.

During the 1950s and 1960s, emerging black playwrights from abroad who were then working in London were supported by the Royal Court, which presented Barry Reckord's Flesh to a Tiger (1958), You in Your Small Corner (1960, staged by the Cheltenham Theatre Company) and Skyvers (1963), Errol John's Moon on a Rainbow Shawl (1958), and The Invention (1959) and The Lion and the Jewel (1966) by Wole Soyinka, a member of the theatre's Writers’ Group whose play The Road was seen at the Theatre Royal,Stratford East in 1965. With few exceptions, however, major theatres did not employ black actors or programme plays by black writers, and it was left up to the movers and shakers in the black community to agitate for what they wanted; Norman Beaton, Mona Hammond, Isabelle Lucas, Carmen Munroe and Rudolph Walker are among those who continued to be active into the 1990s.

By the early 1970s black theatre was beginning to be an indentifiable force as the alternative theatre movement grew; occasional and temporary black initiatives gave way to more permanent black groups; more playwrights emerged, some of whom had been born in Britain; and, while directors were hard to come by, technicians rare and producers rarer still, there was a greater number of skilled black actors from whom to choose. Jamaican actor Frank Cousins founded the Dark and Light Theatre in 1970 in Brixton, south London, to provide acting opportunities in a white culture and to serve the new black community, throwing open the venue to a host of projects, including in 1972 the first all-London tour of a black play, Smile Orange by Trevor Rhone. Inter-Action’s lunchtime theatre, which had presented plays by the black American writer Ed Bullins in its opening year, 1968, followed this with a Black Power season in 1970, and its success helped Dark and Light transform itself into the Black Theatre of Brixton under Jamal Ali, Norman Beaton and Rufus Collins.

A variety of groups emerged around the country, from Leeds to Birmingham and Nottingham to Bristol, but London remained the central force; companies such as Temba, founded in 1972 by South African actor Alton Kumalo, survived until 1993, promoting new and established black writers as well as interpretations of the classics, while most, like Calabash or the Fasimbas, disappeared quite quickly. The Keskidee Centre in Islington, north London, founded in 1976, became an important focus for training and production. Under the artistic directorship of Collins and the management of Oscar Abrams, this converted church presented work by Caribbean, African and American (though few British) playwrights such as Lincoln Brown, Steve Carter, Yulisa Amadu Maddy and Derek Walcott.

It was also in the 1970s that new plays were beginning to reflect the day-to-day preoccupations of the black community in Britain, and a distinctive group of black writers became visible; Mustapha Matura has reached the widest audience through his association with a range of theatres, from the Black Theatre Cooperative, which he co-founded in 1978 with Charlie Hanson, and Foco Novo to the Royal Court and National Theatre. The BTC touring production of his Welcome Home Jacko (1979) marked a sea change in the fortunes of black theatre, capturing the imagination of a large young audience of overwhelmingly first-time theatregoers.

Alongside Matura were Ali, whose multimedia performances prefigured rap; Michael Abbensetts; Alfred Fagon; Tunde Ikoli, whose Scrape Off the Black (1977) has been produced up and down the country; Jimi Rand; Edgar White; and T Bone Wilson. In the 1980s women playwrights came to the fore, such as Trish Cook, Maria Oshodi, Winsome Pinnock – a quiet, effective and surprisingly vigorous voice – and Jacqueline Rudet. Carib Theatre, founded in 1980 by Anton Phillips and Yvonne Brewster, filled the gap left for children, touring innovative plays, most of them written by black playwrights.

The issue of buildings and the level of subsidy continued to be thorny subjects. The different groups, all with their different policies, have lobbied for control of their own premises and hence of their production processes. Unfortunately, although a huge sum of money had been earmarked for turning the Roundhouse into a black arts centre, the project did not materialize. However, a breakthrough was achieved in 1992 when Talawa Theatre Company, established in 1986 by Yvonne Brewster as a middle-scale company undertaking residencies in regional theatres, for three years from 1992 to 1995 occupied its own fully equipped theatre, the Cochrane in central London, which had been refurbished for the purpose.

Outside London, too, the situation remained poor; the Cave, established in Birmingham in 1983, closed in 1991. It had provided various cultural facilities in conjunction with the probation service. In Manchester the Nia Centre for black arts was opened in 1991, but closed in 1997, though the Drum Arts Centre opened in 1998 funded by the National Lottery.

For black performers the situation had improved, both in Drama Schools and in the profession (the actors’ union Equity had set up an Afro-Asian Committee to replace the defunct Coloured Actors’ Committee), although there was still much to be done to achieve proper equality of opportunity and ‘integrated casting’ – casting that ignores the colour of the performers’ skin – was by no means generally accepted.

Some practitioners argue that sufficient progress has been made to drop the term ‘black theatre’, but however integrated the work of actors has become, it has not extended to black playwrights, directors and designers. Thus the term ‘black theatre’ was still firmly in place at the end of the twentieth century.

Use of labels such as ‘black’ – or, similarly, ‘gay’ or ‘women's’ – theatre is always problematic, contested and changing. It is governed by particular circumstances which themselves are changing, and can vary in meaning and effect depending on who is making use of the labels and to whom. It might be to defend gains, assert rights and ambitions, or regain control of self-identity, and in the process the labels will themselves be altered to keep up with and/or advance the altered perceptions and realities, especially where imperialism and immigration/emigration have been or are involved.

Although theatres such as the Tricycle in north London, the Theatre Royal, Stratford East and the Hackney Empire have collaborated with black practitioners to give a new platform to black theatre, the practitioners have always valued the importance of organizing themselves. In 1985 Black Theatre Forum was founded to stimulate the development of black theatre in Britain, running black theatre seasons, a magazine and a network of contacts, and embracing individuals and groups from a wide range of backgrounds, primarily Afro-Caribbean and Asian British, while questioning the basis of ethnic definitions; however, ten years on it began to run out of steam. The Rastafarian company Double Edge and the Black Theatre of Women could be found alongside the British Asian Theatre or Tara Arts. Asian theatre in Britain, while often brought under the black theatre umbrella, has a distinct and variegated life of its own, but is usually not highly visible in the mainstream media. Its traditions do not recognize the separation of categories such as dance or theatre that is common in Britain, and many of its activities are not in English. As new generations grow up, a new aesthetic emerges, sometimes bi- or multi-lingual, sometimes offering a new take on conventional English theatre, sometimes appropriating Western classics in mainstream situations. Individual writers like Hanif Kureishi, Karim Alrawi, Ayub Khan-Din and Harwant Bains have appeared – and the success of Khan-Din's East is East (1996, West End 1997, filmed 1999) briefly raised the profile of Asian theatre – but it is the existence of companies like Tara Arts and the Tamasha Theatre Company (founded 1989) that have kept the notion of an Asian theatre alive as the British social context evolves.

from Yvonne Brewster, Colin Chambers, The Continuum Companion to Twentieth-Century Theatre, ed. Colin Chambers (London, 2002).