March 24, 2014

SPREADING THE WORD by Tony Howard

Writing about web page http://theconversation.com/we-need-more-racial-diversity-on-the-stage-both-sides-of-the-pond-22409

BBAS has been asked by the Anglo-Australian online academic forum The Conversation to comment on the opportunities, or lack of them, for non-white performers. Here's my contribution. Excuse the 'I' - it's very much 'we'. Please join in.

We need more racial diversity on the stage both sides of the pond

In 1825 the African-American actor Ira Aldridge came to London in The Slave’s Revenge.

Before Abolition, he had no hopes of working on the stage at home, but he became one of the most popular Shakespearean performers in Europe and was honoured by monarchs. A century later, Paul Robeson played Othello in London because racism made it impossible in the USA. He stayed and starred in six British films.

Now we’re facing an ironic reversal.

There’s been much coverage of how black British actors are triumphing on US screens, and not on those in the UK. But the opportunities in theatre also don’t exist here. I have been investigatingthe history and the current state of play for British black and Asian theatre artists and producers. They tell me that local audiences – white, black, Asian – have become less open to productions that don’t reflect “their” communities. I’ve heard that fewer roles are being auditioned colour-blind, and young and established actors alike have said to me, in frustration, “I’m going to have to try America”. How did this happen?

The actor Don Warrington has said that white actors’ careers run on “tramlines” partly shaped by the classical repertoire, whereas black actors’ employment is “stop-go”. Many are shunted into the sidings of Casualty, Holby City and countless police procedurals. In 2010, an unprecedented Guardian editorial complained that David Harewood – the National Theatre’s first black Othello, 13 years previously – was being given too few stage opportunities. Showtime promptly stepped in and cast him as the CIA chief in Homeland.

Last year several African-American plays and musical dramas were staged in London, including August Wilson’s Fences with Lenny Henry. Optimism grew. But as Fences’ director Paulette Randall has said, “It’s history repeating itself”.Back in 1986, Yvonne Brewster founded Talawa Britain’s foremost black-led theatre company. She fostered brilliant black playwrights and performers and laid claim to King Lear and Oscar Wilde. Meanwhile the actress Josette Simon was working her way up through the RSC’s ranks – from playing a desert-island sprite, a witch, and Cleopatra’s handmaid – to lead the company in 1987. Then she played Maggie - Marilyn Monroe - in Arthur Miller’s After the Fall at the National. The dramatist Bonnie Greer said she moved to London from Chicago because of the achievements of Simon’s generation.

British theatre is both art and part of an industry topped by film and television that produces highly skilled practitioners but doesn’t always know how to use them. Except stereotypically.

Multi-ethnic talent – especially policy-making talent – is essential off-stage as well as on. After a 2002 report revealed that 96% of British theatre staff were white, the Arts Council launched a decade-long series of Race Equality schemes that called on all companies to draw up positive programmes. Some called this “Stalinist” but experience shows that in a “stop-go” climate isolated advances are often followed by complacency and reversals. Under the Conservative-led Government there have been disproportionately large austerity” cuts to multicultural companies.

But committed practitioners will work with the tools available. Three leading black actors, Adrian Lester, Paterson Joseph and David Harewood, have all made TV documentaries working on Shakespeare with urban teenagers. In financially straightened times, Talawa’s current director Michael Buffong is working strategically alongside the mainstream system in the regions, with co-productions of Waiting for Godot and Miller’s All My Sons (with Don Warrington).

What is needed are artists prepared to ask inconvenient questions, which of course is traditionally the role of the writer. The American playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney has worked with and shaken up the RSC, directing Dharmesh Patel as Hamlet in a version for children: “If you’re from a minority and in the first show you see, everyone is white, a pattern builds.”

In the other direction, the Casualty actor Kwame Kwei-Armah took on the mission of dramatising a breadth of British black experiences, from street crime to the much less familiar world of politics and think-tanks. He inspired the National Theatre to create a vital database of black plays: http://www.blackplaysarchive.org.uk/. He’s now artistic director of Baltimore’s Center Stage Theatre.

And how radically different is American theatre really?

Despite all the advances in positive discrimination from the 1960s onwards, last month Theatre for a New Audience in New York called a round-table to confront the barriers non-white performers still face. For instance, it emerged that no Romeo or Hamlet of colour has been cast by a mainstream American theatre for 35 years.

On the other hand, the very next day, the <a href="new Harlem Shakespeare Festival</a> – created by the inspirational performer Debra Ann Byrd – commemorated the Shakespearean achievements of Aldridge, Robeson and Henrietta Vinton Davies (actress and activist: 1860-1941). The past can remind the present of what’s possible. http://www.nyc.gov/html/mancb10/downloads/pdf/arts/agenda_arts_feb2014.pdf

On March 25, Adrian Lester and a London cast will remind New Yorkers of Ira Aldridge’s bitter struggles and astonishing victories when Lolita Chakrabarti’s acclaimed play Red Velvet transfers to the St. Anne’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. Protest and celebration, British and American, must work together – because the Atlantic’s not just a lure, it’s a link.

Read the original article in The Conversation:

htttp://www.nyc.gov/html/mancb10/downloads/pdf/arts/agenda_arts_feb2014.pdf


- 2 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Jami Rogers

    Thanks, Tony, for this thought-provoking post. This recent interest in the UK press about British black actors making it big in America – and it is worth noting the attention is purely on black and male (rather than Asian, for example, and female) – skews the debate and makes America seem a paradise of equality. The UK press in this case is most likely driven by editors looking for a “local” take on an international story – and one that combines Hollywood glamour with a “Brits made good” simple narrative of the kind that the media thrives on. The media attention on an extremely small handful of actors (again, actOR and black) feels more like Colin Welland’s “The British Are Coming” cry as he accepted his Oscar for best screenplay for “Chariots of Fire”, a bit of cultural oomph (and not unwarranted pride) that obscures the fact that the current state of integrated casting in the US is as complex as that in the UK. Two days ago, National Public Radio’s initiative in reporting on race in America – “NPR Code Switch” – posted the piece below, which shows that Harewood, Ejiofor, and Elba are exceptions (and potentially exceptions precisely because they are British) to the glass ceiling that seems to have developed on both sides of the Atlantic since the days of Joe Papp and – in the UK – since Josette Simon worked her way up in the ranks of the Royal Shakespeare Company, for example. America is clearly no idyllic country to which all ethnic minority actors should decamp for success (It’s worth remembering Adrian Lester came back to the UK as the opportunities weren’t there in the aftermath of his success in “Primary Colors”).

    They Cast Whom?! Actor Choices To Offend Every Racial Sensibility
    by Kat Chow

    NPR – March 22, 2014

    No matter how you feel about ethnicity and casting — and how ethnicity or race should relate to casting — there’s probably something in the news lately that’s going to make you upset. Folks have strong opinions about how the race of actors should or shouldn’t relate to the characters they play, but regardless of the position you take on this front, let us count the various ways that certain actors getting cast in certain roles might make you squirm:...

    http://www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch/2014/03/22/292548038/they-cast-whom-actor-choices-to-offend-every-racial-sensibility?sc=17&f=1001

    24 Mar 2014, 13:01

  2. Anthony Howard

    This piece was republished by the ‘New Statesman’:
    http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2014/03/we-need-more-racial-diversity-stage-both-sides-pond

    10 Jul 2014, 12:30


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