Last week Thursday I attended an open space forum by Devoted and Disgruntled (D&D) to discuss the following topic: What are we going to do about Race and Diversity in UK Theatre.
For those that don’t know, open space is a platform where delegates have the opportunity to ‘call a session’ based around the topic on the event.
This was my 2nd time taking part in D&Ds open space forum and I called the following session: “What on Earth is Black Theatre and why does it still exist”.
I began the session by setting the context as to why I raised that question. Black Theatre is still a subject area that I’m not sure I’m 100% comfortable with. Actually – I’m really not comfortable with it at all. I still wonder as to why in the 21st century we still carry a platform that in my opinion ‘segregates’ ‘black work’ (whatever that may be), from other theatrical platforms. Having researched into Black Theatre, I have understood the reasons as to why it came about in the 1970’s, during post war migration when black people felt marginalised and without a space to celebrate their culture and identity in white Britain. Black people had to create platforms through comedy, music and theatre to 1, challenge racism and discrimination; 2, celebrate their uniqueness and share their stories with one another and 3, to create an identity space where they could be understood and valued as individuals. So there was indeed a time when black people were not given the opportunity to have a voice via mainstream art forms, so they HAD to create their own platforms and thus the emergence of Black Theatre.
I’d also like to point out that Black Theatre was not isolated as a platform/identity space for black expression. The same took place in music, politics, and social spaces such as night clubs, comedy clubs and churches. Much of this ‘segregation’ (YEA I SAID IT!) still exists today, and so my question is, why, especially when conditions for black people today, are completely different to the way they were all those years ago.
Right, so now I’ve got your attention (and potential insults ready to be unleashed), let’s get back to the point! What on Earth is Black Theatre and Why does it exist?
In my session the group expressed what they felt Black Theatre is/represents:
1. A celebration of culture, language and physicality
2. An expression of stereotypes
3. Political views
4. Celebration of hidden, oppressed and untold stories
5. Diverse stories about a human experience
6. Fight for self-definition
7. A reflection of ones work, simply because their skin in black
8. Being integral to what you believe
9. Connecting humanity
Now as you can see the above list is VERY extensive. This is because every individual’s definition of ‘black’ is very different, and therefore their interpretation of Black Theatre will reflect that. I particularly like no. 5, the idea that Black Theatre portrays diverse stories of a human experience. That excites me because it’s almost as though we are finally beginning to understand that we are not just black, we are human. Yaayy!!! BUT – do we really need Black Theatre to teach/show us that we are different and have a unique story to tell? Please…. Ponder that!
Are you still with me? I’m getting somewhere with this, so hang on.
We then went on to discuss why Black Theatre still exists and the long and short of it was/is because not all black people feel like they have a place in society. Some black people still don’t feel they have equal standing with white people. Some black artists don’t feel like their art is appreciated by the Arts Council and others alike. Some black artists constantly feel oppressed, judged, undervalued and as though they have no place in ‘mainstream’ theatre.
This does indeed sadden me, because unfortunately for some, this much is true. Many who attended D&D expressed their heart-breaking stories of how they faced rejection after rejection – and to be honest, this was a real eye opener for me. You can’t deny or ignore someone’s experience because it doesn’t match yours! We cannot be ignorant to racial discrimination which still exists. These things still happen today – there is still a glass ceiling that needs to be broken. We cannot and should not deny that!
Something needs to change! And until this session happened I had no idea what it was.
It is for these reasons I feel Black Theatre serves no purpose in giving black artists equal standing with the rest of society. In fact I will go as far as saying is it quite destructive! One gentleman joined the discussion a little later, and after sharing his struggles in the industry suggested we (black people) form our own funding bodies- we should aim to “do it ourselves” and not go to the all white Arts Council for funding….. Ermmmm… *Tumble weed* and at this point a few members left the group and went elsewhere, but I’ll leave you to come to your own judgement on that!
My point is that segregating ourselves, serves no purpose. Something has to change structurally. I would suggest that change needs to come in the form of infiltrating the current infrastructure!
Will you consider for a moment, a world where diversity is not just reflected in the shopping centres and on the streets, but diversity is reflected in government, politics, education, corporate organisations, media and television etc etc. This diverse picture will create an environment which does not exert white supremacy because of the lack of diversity in our leaders. This picture will portray a message that Britain is diverse and has the capacity to know and understand all its citizens.
It’s important that we start to look at the bigger picture and see that this issue of race and diversity is not just about Theatre, it’s a wider issue that affects our society. We have to start broadening our thinking and think about the ways we can build an integrated society where every culture and race is represented. Our ancestors fought for this. They did not fight for us to stay angry and separate ourselves onto our own.
I’m not asking you to blindly agree with what I’m saying. I’m asking you to consider my points, and hear out my concerns regarding this topic and come to your own conclusions.
I often question God and ask Him why He made me black. I could have been any colour in the world, but here I am. Black as black can be. Damn it! I’m not even light skinned – hated by my own! – even Mac cosmetics just about recognise me!!! (lol – joke, it is not my intention to open up another debate on skin tone!)
all jokes aside though, it took me many many MANY years to love and accept myself for who I am today and I am not about to let anything or anyone hinder me from attaining my goals or reaching my full potential. In my personal experience I have not faced a glass ceiling, but that’s MY experience. It’s not my intention to undermine anyone who has experienced short comings because of their race.
There is so much more I could say on the topic, but for now I hope I have provided you with enough food for thought. If you have any thoughts on anything I have written, please feel free to drop a comment!