Passing The Baton

Anna-Maria Nabirye

Where are the Black British women in the Total Theatre Magazine Print Archive, and in British theatre generally? Actor, writer and artist Anna-Maria Nabirye dives in  

I was at an anti-racist theatre workshop held at Cambridge Junction in February 2019 that was called Decolonising Theatre: Conscientious Theatre. It was being led by actor/director/educator Nicole Brewer – who had come over from DC, USA to share her groundbreaking work. It was a glorious day with so much learnt – please follow the link here for more information, as I could get carried away and write out the whole workshop verbatim! But she started the session with a request for us to have 'long memories' – a notion shared with her by an indigenous woman of the Cherokee nation. She went on, asking us to give awareness to the earth that we were gathered on. She spoke in recognition of the legacy and history of the British Empire, the lives and cultures it claimed, the pain that was caused in its name, both to peoples far away and those of us gathered in a sweaty back room in Cambridge. At this point – three minutes in – I almost burst into tears. I had never heard anyone name this, clearly and simply: recognising the history of where we stand and the journey that brought so many of us – me included – here.  

So, with the mandate set, I have begun my journey to create a 'long memory', delving into the history of Black British Theatre. By owning the stories we tell ourselves, demanding more from the stories that are told to us, challenging who gets to tell the stories and who archives them for future generations, we link ourselves to the present, enjoy the fruits of the labour of those that have come before us, whilst standing on the foundations they built. 

On International Women’s Day this year, Angela Davis spoke at the Southbank Centre. One of the many things she said was, ‘We do the work we can, to empower the next generation to continue the work.’ She was talking specifically about the civil rights movement, racism and misogyny. But, on reflection, her words apply to theatre and the arts, as theatre and the arts are part of the civil rights movement, ending racism and misogyny. However, if the next generation are not aware of the work that has been done before, cannot read about it, learn from it, watch it and work with it, then where is the empowerment? Gone I think. I personally feel this lack of foundation, this disappeared history – so when Total Theatre Magazine put the call out to find artist/writers to work within their Archive, I felt a lifeline being handed to me.

Typing the word ‘black’ into the Total Theatre Magazine Print Archive search tool, I come first to references about theatrical space – the famous black box – to mood, several titles for pieces of work, until I finally come to an article about race and Black British Theatre. Understanding the archive for me is about understanding the power of words. Black can be brown, skin colour, African, Caribbean, American, British. It is darkness, the absence of light, not a colour but a shade, absorption. It’s chic, elegant, fashionable, forgiving and flattering. It is magical, mystical, evil, bad and scary. It’s my identity, my tribe, my fire and power, but also a weight dragging me down. It’s what people see first or ‘not at all’. It’s read within my name. Black. Not a bad write up for a five-letter word – meanings might have changed over time but somewhere there is a residue. 

So, with this in its arsenal why hasn’t the idea of Blackness within British Theatre taken over and blown the bloody doors off? There are so many reasons but for ease and word count I am going to state: Institutional Racism. Don’t believe me? I implore you to engage that long memory. 

Akua Obeng-Frimpong writes an article called ‘We Have to Represent’ (issue winter 2002) towards the end of the Arts Council’s Year of Cultural Diversity, about the lack of Black representation in British theatre. She speaks to artists Josette Bushell-Mingo and Ruth Nutter, who were responsible for creating PUSH, a festival of work showcasing Black artists, and attends a discussion on Black theatre by Mind the Gap, where unsurprisingly the focus was on the  'lack of prominent role models and a history which desperately needs to be maintained and highlighted at every opportunity'. She notes: 'Young Black people today find themselves of a generation who are not sure of their heritage.'

Akua goes on to write,'There are few in managerial or producing roles, and the work of Black arts practitioners is not being sufficiently developed.' She doubts herself as a legitimate commentator – a legacy of misogyny and colonialism that seems to eat into her confidence, perhaps? 'I am not accomplished as an arts practitioner (but I hope to get there).' 

Sadly, in 2019 this article still feels relevant. A year of focus by the Arts Council in 2002 was not enough, Bushell-Mingo states in regard to her festival: ’PUSH is about looking forward to a future where there is no need for an organisation which specifically develops Black arts alone. [We] hope that [our] work encourages mainstream organisations to think more inclusively...'  Can we say we are reaching towards that future over 17 years later? We do have black people in managerial roles – but how many are Black women? There are more Black producers, but is work they are making supported institutionally, fully funded, enabling the arts practitioners the ability to create in sustainable and safe ways?  

The Arts Council has committed through its Creative Case for Diversity, which states 'National Portfolio Organisations need to show how they contribute to the Creative Case for Diversity through the work they produce, present and distribute, through their programming or collections, and by demonstrating how their work is accessible and relevant to their local communities (where applicable).' Also, through its Change Makers programme (2016–2018) for Non-White British practitioners that aimed to increase the diversity of leaders within arts and culture organisations: ‘We will fund long-term relationships between National Portfolio Organisations and aspiring arts leaders who are disabled or from black and minority ethnic communities.'

These are both bold statements, but how do they relate on the ground? The National Theatre has just announced their latest season, featuring only one women in a directorial or writing role, and its latest big show, A Small Island is based on the novel by Andrea Levy, portraying Jamaican experiences in the UK during the Windrush era – but adapted for stage by a white woman and directed by a white man.  

Akua today has become that accomplished arts practitioner she sought to be, a producer with her own company, Kind, and an Arts Development Officer with Cambridge City Council. I am buoyed by this discovery. Perhaps the young black producer starting out can find some solace in Akua’s journey or even possibly a mentor – someone who understands and has a lived experience of the legacy of Institutional Racism and the collective trauma of Colonialism. 

So, back to the archive to dig in again and extend my memory. Time after time the words Black Mime Theatre came up, a company I hadn’t heard of, and the name of Denise Wong, who created the Black Mime Women’s Troupe. The V&A’s Theatre and Performance Collections cross-references this information – a web is starting to be seen – and I am pulling at the delicate fibres, finding more and more precious information. Much to my joy these people are still alive. Denise Wong, an actress who became artistic director of The Black Mime Theatre, then went on to found the Black Mime Theatre Women’s Troupe, is working as a SEN teacher in Croydon, still plugged into theatre and the arts as a freelance director. Her work that I read about seems exciting and explorative: her aims to 'provide entertaining and thought-provoking experiences, relying on visual rather then verbal skills to break through barriers of language, accent, age and class' (BMT Press Pack, available at the V&A Theatre and Performance Collections). These aims seem as needed today as back in 1986 when she became artistic director of Black Mime Theatre. 

In fact, I see this need reflected in my own work, which pushes against the traditional text based theatrical confines, most recently my piece Up In Arms. This work is a multidisciplinary piece that uses ritual, photography and immersive theatre techniques to create space; to have challenging and intimate conversations about race, feminism and friendship. In discovering this company and searching online for further information about them  – more fibres to make this web substantial – I also discover the voice of Lynette Goddard, who states in Staging Black Feminism 'Under Wong’s leadership BMT sought to develop a new mime that reflected their concerns as black British people.' 

Wait...There is a book called Staging Black Feminism?! Alas, I can only access snippets as it is no longer in print… and only available online for £70, which speaks volumes about access to story ownership.

The digitisation of Total Theatre Magazine in print for me is a treasure map of clues leading to buried gold. This year, Shakespeare’s Globe has announced it will make its own archive available online. Though it may not hold as many discoveries in regards to Black British Theatre, it is a place I myself have worked within: from a Deaf led British Sign Language A Midsummer Night’s Dream; to new writing Boudica – a feminist piece looking at the warrior and the mother, her daughters played by two Black actresses (Joan Iyiola and Natalie Simpson); to Macbeth where I recently took on the traditional white male role of Macduff. These productions will stand the test of time and be a gold-mine for future Black female performers looking to claim their place in a society that has a lot of work to do in ridding itself of racist practices and ideologies. 

The archive is a key to knowledge, to seeing oneself reflected in the historical tapestry of culture and the arts. Representation is so important. In the words of Loraine Hansberry, 'I believe that one of the most sound ideas in dramatic writing is that in order to create the universal, you must pay very great attention to the specific. Universality, I think, emerges from truthful identity of what is.’ (Lorraine Hansberry radio interview with Studs Terkel, broadcast on WFMT Radio, Chicago, Illinois, May 12, 1959). Access to that specific section of theatre that maps work made by people that look like me and share a similar journey is a way of finding that dropped baton so I can confidently continue the race for whoever is coming next.