November 02, 2014

Behind the scenes: Black theatre history research.

Delia Jarrett-Macauley writes:

Historians of black Britain tend to cherish the moments when they discovered their heroes. The moment when, surrounded by boxes of archives or scrolling through a microfilm of unfamiliar names, their eyes landed on some precious reference: the first black British footballer, the first African-Caribbean nurse or the first Jamaican dramatist to have a play performed in the West End. Such references point to a Black historical tale clearly visible across a sea of white stories…

Of course, this doesn’t happen very often. Most of the time, the histories of black Britain remain hidden in the archives. The significance of unfamiliar names listed on a microfilm is lost on the eager researcher.

Sometimes, however, while tracking the lives of the now famous – Walter Tull, the first black footballer, Mary Seacole, the Jamaican nurse, or Una Marson, the first African-Caribbean playwright whose work was performed in the West End, in 1934, you come across references that help you understand how black communities operated, or how they were regarded. In other words, the context of a hero or heroine’s life throws light on the bigger picture.

Quite recently, I was re-reading Leslie Thompson’s Autobiography as told to Jeffrey P Green. Thompson, a Jazz musician from Jamaica, born 1901, came to England as a young man. He talked about the casts of black people who performed in the London shows starring Paul Robeson during the 1930s.

sam manning

Sam Manning was in The Sun Never Sets on Drury Lane. Those shows that had large coloured casts never really did well. The promoter would get Paul Robeson or someone of quality to head the show, and the rest would be hired because of their colour. Almost anything that had a large number of coloured artists was never a success because the other actors were so poor.

Leslie Thompson mentions several ‘top shows’, excluding Will Garland’s Brown Birds and the Blackbirds shows from his analysis, and he goes on to say that:

The individual artists suffered, as theatrical agents hardly distinguished between coloured artists: only the giants, like Robeson, Elizabeth Welch, and Josephine Baker, avoided the stigma resulting from poor quality all-coloured shows.

Today, Black theatrical stars like Adrian Lester, Lenny Henry, Jade Anouka and Josette Simon, who have played major roles in productions of Shakespeare’s plays, can take to the stage knowing that the black and Asian actors performing alongside them, in the various small Shakespearean roles, might well have trained at elite drama schools such as RADA and LAMDA. Large black casts don’t denote ‘poor quality’, nor do all-black shows lead to ‘stigma’. But, within Leslie Thompson’s concern about the casting of black people, there is a timely reminder about one of the potential pitfalls of ‘hiring because of colour’. The casting director might think we need an Asian, a middle-aged Black man, a youth with locks…

When what they really need high-quality performers, of whatever racial, cultural or ethnic origin!

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