December 7th, 2011

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Black actors on the English stage: Onwards and Upwards!

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In October 2011, there was a Black Voices Platform (Talk) at the National Theatre, chaired by Paterson Joseph. Paterson Joseph was joined by several generations of Black British actors to discuss the identity of the modern black voice in British theatre today.

My write-up of the event has now gone live on the Operation Black Vote website. This feature is the one that I am proudest of as it combines two of my key lifelong passions - the National Theatre and Race.

Here is the write-up:

The National Theatre held a discussion on the identity of the modern Black and non-white voice in British theatre back in October, hosted by Paterson Joseph. On the panel was actor Asif Khan, the actress Ellen Thomas, and the actor and director Don Warrington. Together, they represented several generations of actors.

I am a regular at the National Theatre; you could say it is my second home. On the day of this particular Platform (talk), the National was filled with young Black people, actors, writers and directors. It promised to be a great event with plenty of excitement amongst those who were at the National.

Joseph as a host was fun, lively, engaging, warm and friendly, and made the audience feel at home. He introduced the event as a "celebration of Black British Theatre" and acknowledged the "long line of Black performers in this country" on whose shoulders he was standing. He wanted everyone to recognise that there was a long history of Black actors on the stage in England.

Rather than do a verbatim report of the discussion, I wanted to highlight a few of the key themes and focus on those.

One of the themes was about opening up access to the theatre for Black people (as actors, writers, directors and audience members) and making sure no one felt shut out of the theatre. The National Theatre is for everyone but some Black people feel that their stories were not being told on the stage and they felt underrepresented. There is definitely a need and appetite for plays which speak about the Black British experience.

A good example of this was Elmina's Kitchen by Kwame Kwei-Armah, which was first staged at the National in 2003 with an all-Black cast. The play brought new audiences to the National Theatre because the Black community felt a connection with the play. Joseph, who was in Elmina's Kitchen, cited one of the comments that encapsulated how people felt about the piece, which was "thank you for showing me, me" or put another way, thanks for "putting me and my story on the stage" of the National Theatre.

Another theme was cross-cultural or multi-racial casting. Ellen Thomas was firm in her belief that the guiding principle should always be that "the best actress for the part got the part" and that race and ethnicity was irrelevant and should not be a consideration. The actors who were on the panel were not interested in Black Seasons; and they did not want to be known as "Black Actors", they were simply "Actors". They did not want to be limited by their race or ethnicity. A good example of cross-cultural casting was when Joseph played Peter Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais, in Saint Joan by Bernard Shaw at the National Theatre.

Joseph spoke passionately against quotas for Black actors as he felt that that would mean those chosen for the production would be perceived as, and would feel, "second best" - that they had only got the role because of the quota system. The role should always be given to the best actor for that part, and Black actors needed to feel and believe that they had got the role because they were the best actor for the part.

That being said, all the actors acknowledged that there was no level playing field for Black actors. West End Theatres receiving no public subsidy were businesses driven by commercial decisions. Black actors were less "bankable" than White actors. This meant that Black actors actually had to be better than their White counterparts to land the role. So the best advice that Joseph could give to all the young actors in the audience was to "keep being excellent". Don Warrington stressed that real progress would only be made and Black actors will only have arrived, when people stop noticing and commenting on the fact that there is a Black actor playing the part.

Joseph also emphasised that while race was an important aspect of your identity, it was by no means everything, and you should not let it limit you or define you - "you is not the colour of your skin." A person's identity was the very essence of who they are; and race/ethnicity was just one aspect of that identity.

copyright © Rakshita Patel 2011

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