November 02, 2013

Black History Month 2013

Delia Jarrett-Macauleybbas-colour-logo.png

As Black History Month, an irregular period of celebration and reflection, comes to an end, it is heartening to see what has been accomplished in recording the black cultural presence in this country. The BBAS project focussed its energies on two London boroughs, inner city Lambeth and the outer borough of Barking, presenting the exhibition ‘To Tell Your Story’ and the accompanying talk at Clapham library (see Pat Cumper’s guest blog) and later at Barking’s Broadway Theatre to accompany the production of Othello directed by Suba Das.

The recent activities of the BBAS team sit alongside the moves by a number of cultural organisations, which are also seeking to show that the black presence in British history is greater than may be supposed. Indeed, within the visual arts world there has been a flutter of justifiable excitement over the discovery of a fine portrait, The Black Gardener by Harold Gilman, 1905, which was purchased by the Garden Museum in London with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

A wonderful, large portrait in black, white and grey shades, featuring what the cultural historian Jan Marsh believes is a real gardener, not a model, dressed in a remarkably clean shirt and shown inside with his large calloused bare feet, broken pots and tools. Although Gilman used a restricted palette for this beautifully drawn figure, curious shadows on either side seem to hold him in place.

What are we in the performing arts world to make of such substantial acquisitions?

First, as a general rule as all the launch evening speakers explained, the range of images depicting black figures in the 19th century is growing steadily, to reveal the diversity of the ‘forgotten’ presence of people of African descent and to enable us to think more widely about the links to contemporary cultural practice.

So, for instance, while the name of Elgar is well-known outside Classical Music circles, it has been down to a minority of dedicated researchers to keep the name of his musical contemporary, the self-styled Anglo-African composer Samuel Coleridge Taylor alive. And yet in in 1898 when Samuel Coleridge Taylor’s Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast (op.30, no 1) was first performed, the principal of the Royal College of Music described it as ‘one of the most remarkable events in modern musical history.’

Seventy years earlier, also in London, the African actor Ira Aldridge was at the Royal Coburg as Oroonoko in The Revolt of Surinam, or A Slave’s Revenge, an adaptation of Thomas Southerne’s play based on Aphra Behn’s novel.

Both men experienced their fair share of racist criticism and abuse, as ably documented by Peter Fryer in Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, and the point is now frequently made that lessons must be learned from these Victorian odysseys into the performing arts world.

Among the invited guests at the launch of the Gilman portrait was Vincent Osborne, the Artistic Director of The Black British Classical Foundation which campaigns for the promotion of Black British Opera singers and has forged links with some of the regional and national companies, Scottish Opera, for instance, creating projects and performing opportunities for these professional artists. Singers such as Elizabeth Llewellyn, winner of the first Voice of Black Opera competition, in 2009, and Ronnie Samm who played Otello in Graham Vick’s Birmingham City Opera 2009 production of the same name, are associated with this area of work. Not yet household names, perhaps, unlike some of the stars of stage and small screen who have played major Shakespearean roles in the mainstream theatres, but nevertheless, talented and trained people whose chosen area of work is undoubtedly Classical, of international standard and therefore also mainstream.

In a similar way as the Black British Classical Foundation, the BBAS project is attempting through its series of talks, exhibition and research activities to track some of the developments from earlier periods of Black and Asian accomplishment in Shakespeare performance and to make the necessary links to contemporary practice and experience.

Outside the realm of Classical Western performing arts, but within our field of interest in representing other cultures in theatre was the Shed’s (NT) production, The World of Extreme Happiness by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig presented by a gifted company led by Katie Leung and including Daniel York who spoke at the BBAS symposium, ‘Mapping Black and Asian Shakespeare’ in July 2013, at Warwick.

Although the play is told largely in English, it shares the stories of rural and urban Chinese people journeying through the transformations in contemporary China and, movingly expresses what it means to be poor, single and particularly poor, single and female in that fast-changing world. Inevitably too, The World of Extreme Happiness provided a rare opportunity to see people of Chinese origin playing on a West End stage in a work that was about home, migration and labour.

As this irregular season of reflection and celebration draws to a close, let’s hope that the combined efforts of the Black History Month’s programmers up and down the country have a lasting impact on any initiatives funded to bring cultural change.

To see The Black Gardener:

To see Delia's website:

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