“Black statement to “enrich the cultural life of

“Black people have lived
in Britain longer than they have in the United States and yet, until the
closing decade of the twentieth century, their contribution to British theatre
has received limited and short-lived attention.” (Osborne, 2006, pg. 13). Here Osbourne articulates what this essay
plans to analyse; to interrogate the statement in regard to Talawa Theatre Company
and cross-examine Osbourne’s view. This will be done through the analysis of
the tension between black theatre companies’ creative influences and the
mainstream, whilst also considering the notion of cultural specificity, politics
and questioning how the many diverse types of discrimination may affect black
theatre companies’ artistic processes.

Founded in 1986 and of
one of the UK’s primary black touring companies, Talawa Theatre Company has a
seemingly straight-forward mission statement to “enrich the cultural life of
all.” (Talawa, 2017). Aiming to represent their culture strongly through their
work this is signified immediately, as it is projected through their name. As
Godiwala states “Talawa means deceptively little
but greatly endowed…resilient…committed.” (Godiwala,
2006, pg. 125). Further noting how this cultural expression is “both
polemical and ideological”; (Godiwala, 2006, pg. 126) depicting resonance of
their heritage, a “combination of a Jamaican expression”, (Godiwala, 2006, pg. 125) whilst also representing
what they are fighting for now regarding, “the lack of creative opportunities
for Black actors and the marginalisation of Black peoples from cultural
processes.” (Talawa, 2017). Although now
a well-known and successful company they did not effortlessly arise, and this
essay will include interrogating their journey.

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For black creatives in
Britain their emergence was an arduous journey, one evidently characterized by “the
frameworks of socio-cultural derogation, namely imperialism and, its major
consequence racism.” (Godiwala, 2006, pg. 61).
This is evident when attempting to re-discover the existence in the
contributions of black people and black practitioners in theatre, as it leads
to show “not only bigotry and marginalization regarding the contributions of black
practitioners, but also draws attention to the protean qualities of the
delimiting term ‘black’ and its specific adaptations by dominant ideologies.” (Godiwala, 2006, pg. 61). History has hence
had a major influence and limited black creatives in their work. In
contradiction of this was “Ira Aldridge (…) a lone but influential example of a
successful black theatre performer in Britain.” (Godiwala,
2006, pg. 67). She created the “initiatory step of a black performer
gaining a limited autonomy over representing a black character in mainstream
theatre.” (Godiwala, 2006, pg. 62). Furthermore,
another aspect of history that has assisted in helping black creatives was “The
Black Theatre Forum (…) formed in 1985 (…) with the aim of stimulating the
development of black theatre in Britain, attract wider audiences…” (Terracciano,
2008). This quote proves how for many years, black and white creatives in
Britain have never been on an equal level, and this is something that has negatively
affected them throughout history in their artistic freedom and leads me to
question to what extent it resonates today.

Mainstream theatre has
specific conventions which limits creatives in what they can display and thus
is not positively reciprocated by all. This is clearly signified by Freeman as
he states how “not only should mainstream theatres not be subsidised, they
should be dismantled, brick by brick.” (Freeman, 2000). His view articulates
the problems and acrimony that can surround mainstream theatre. He further interrogates
mainstream theatre noting how it does not instruct and is not cathartic, so
leads me to question what is the need for it? (Freeman, 2000) He comments theatre
companies in their struggle to become a mainstream success with “extra funding
and opportunities” (Gardner, 2016) but with the knowledge that “the mainstream
isn’t the place for everyone.” (Gardner, 2016). As Lyn Gardner further
articulates how along with extra publicity comes an artistic choice of “diluting
what made you radical or interesting in the first place.” (Gardner, 2016). One
could say that it is interesting to compare the particularity of the mainstream
and the work that it portrays currently. As in this way it is clear to see the
effect that the mainstream can have on all creatives and their artistic
choices. In this context I refer to Gardner (2016) who states how mainstream
theatre is “not genuinely experimental in form, content or politics.” but
performances do come with the support of funding and set in large producing
theatres (Gardner,2016). In comparison, non-mainstream artists reject
traditional methods instead producing work which challenges the audience, often
pushing the boundaries between audience and actor (Snook, 2017). This lead me to
question the Arts Council, regarding mainstream work, finding how some critics
note how specific they are regarding their funding allowance, forcing companies
to change their artistic choices. This resulted in me questioning Talawa and
their transition to the mainstream, questioning whether they altered their work
over the years to gain a more “bums on seats measure of success” (Purkey,2008,
pg. 22) with the danger of distorting their artistic commitment? This is raised
by Loren Kruger as she explores the problem arising for companies to alter their
theatrical commitment to gain more popularity and reach the mainstream. Thus,
the mainstream although regarded as a high point of success could be
diminishing diverse cultural work and reinforcing outdated ideals of society. Kruger
and Gardner’s views lead me back to Freeman as he articulates how the
mainstream is shaping what theatre must be, how it “cannot contain the new: at
best it can manipulate it into borrowed forms, and this is not enough.”
(Freeman, 2000). Although Freeman notes that mainstream theatres are “redundant”
(Freeman, 2000) I discovered that Godiwala disagrees with this view noting how they
aided Talawa, as although they started “as alternative theatre, by
collaborating with and locating…side-by-side established theatres, Talawa
inched closer to the mainstream without losing its ideological and cultural
status.” (Godiwala, 2006, pg. 130). This
quote displays how Talawa have managed to grow slowly and their artistic
process has not been negatively impacted by the mainstream. Furthermore, even
though this recognition for Talawa is successful, Campbell notes how “In an age
of cultural diversity, the success of a few black playwrights raises (…) the
continuing debate about whether black interests are best served by specialist
black theatre companies or by a more integrated mainstream.” (Goddard, 2015, pg. 11) Therefore, this success
and struggle regarding the mainstream, concludes my view that the mainstream
can be detrimental if companies are easily inclined to alter for success.
However, over time it has started to allow for diverse styles to come to
surface although still has far to go until all cultures are represented
equally.

Kene arguably states how one
of the main struggles for black playwrights within theatre is “that it’s easier
to be listened to, to get your work on stage, if you depict the same old shit.”
(Pearce, 2017, pg. 170). He clearly articulates the antagonism that is felt by some
black playwrights and represents the fact that racial discrimination controls
what black creatives feel they can produce. If they don’t abide they won’t
receive the correct recognition therefore in order to be represented out of
choice discrimination occurs. This is reiterated by Saunders as he states how
there has been a “long-standing discrimination against black-British actors,
which for a long time made it impossible for them to play dominant roles in
mainstream theatre productions.” (Saunders, 2015, pg. 237). This discrimination
is also distinct in binary racial groups of white and black and leads me to
question does this focus on race in an all-black theatre company such as Talawa,
mean that other elements could be missed? This is reiterated as Dawn Walton, “artistic
director of the Eclipse Theatre”, (Caines, 2014) states how “to define black
British theatre in terms of race alone is to miss the point.” (Walton, 2008). Lynette
Goddard furthers this subject by stating how “the recent high profile of
contemporary black British playwrights can be attributed to the way they bridge
the gap between black and white dramatic discourses, (…) connecting black and
white people’s experiences socially and theatrically.” (Goddard, 2015, pg. 208).
This differentiation in races can lead to misrepresentation of culture in
theatre and is a struggle which faces Black theatre companies such as Talawa. This
has been shown throughout history as Michael Pickering states, “the racist
impersonating of black people by white performers in blackface minstrelsy was
one of the most pervasive forms of popular entertainment in England and the
rest of Britain during the Victorian period” (Godiwala, 2006, pg. 67). Although
elements of “blackface” (Godiwala, 2006, pg. 67) are no longer around this
focus on race can still arise in a theatrical setting now. As “Howe states,
‘this was not a slice of real life, but of low life sketched by the
playwright for the delectation of whites'” (Cited in Goddard, 2015, pg. 34) regarding
theatre in 2003. This exasperated quote exemplifies the problems of race and
how performances are not being engulfed in the real culture of black people but
are stories that explore “urban teenage crime and violence, often related to
gang warfare and drug dealing.” (Goddard, 2015, pg. 12). Through exploring
these binary groups and seeing the influences placed on race it leads me to see
that the mainstream is not the only factor affecting black theatre companies
and their artistic choices. The limited knowledge and misrepresentation of
black culture is detrimental but how is this to change if black creatives are
still heavily influenced to create work which is not true of their heritage?

Prior to the 21st
century, work by black playwrights and black theatre companies was largely
restricted to studio or fringe theatres (Freeman,
2006, pg. 364). However, succeeding Stephen Lawrence’s death, British
politics and culture changed, widening the public mindset on police brutality
and institutional racism. (Goddard, 2015, pg. 8). Subsequently, black
playwrights played off the changed popular appeal to enhance critical thinking
on the subject and it became easier for them to express their stories to a
wider audience. Goddard reinforces this through noting how “New millennial
black British playwrights arguably benefited from the acknowledgement of
institutional racism in a post-Macpherson climate.” (Goddard, 2015, pg. 8). The
incident of the unprovoked attack and murder of black teenager Stephan Lawrence
led to a police investigation on the equality of the trial. Consequently, these
events brought race into the mainstream and made it something that couldn’t be
ignored (Goddard, 2015, pg. 8). This pandemonium was also notably seen in the
theatre sector by “the Eclipse Theatre Conference and subsequent report”
(Goddard, 2015, pg. 9). The report was the Macpherson report, which influenced
discussions in whether it was beneficial to identifying and tackling
institutional racism within the justice system. This also links and supports
the idea that “the first decade of the twenty-first century has been described
as (…) a ‘cultural renaissance'” (Goddard, 2015, pg. 3) and how the change in
politics are representative of how there has become more space for black
creatives in the mainstream (Goddard, 2015, pg. 3). However, Steven Luckie, previous
Artistic Director of the Eclipse Theatre, fights against this view by stating
how “I wouldn’t really say a renaissance, because I think we have to wait and
see. It takes a renaissance, not just a year.” (Goddard, 2015, pg. 4).  Discussing both of these views Dawn Walton,
arguably notes how “There are more black British playwrights, directors and
actors than ever (…) It needs embracing.” (Walton, 2008). She illustrates how
there has been slow expansion in the possibilities for black creatives, however
simultaneously suggests how the mainstream is not embracing it and if they
don’t there is the concern nothing may change. Nevertheless, it is also
interesting to note how some critics show a different opinion on the effect the
Macpherson report had on the social and political attitudes in Britain and how
this affected black communities. Jasper in fact provides a contrasting view,
describing the report’s negative effects within the policing community. Stating
how “it did not reflect the view of many submissions…above all else it failed
to recognise that racism is systematic.” (Jasper, 2002, pg. 30). This quote concludes
how social and political attitudes have altered their view of black communities
and culture and subsequently have benefited black theatre companies. However,
it is also important to note how views and opinions of those with authority and
power may be another factor that influences creative choices.

Pinnock importantly notes
how “it is still more difficult, however, for black theatre practitioners to
sustain a career in the theatre than their white counterparts”. (Cited in Goddard,
2015, pg. 4).  This quote concludes this
essay to represent how even though theatre has changed and evolved it still has
a long way to go in becoming culturally sensitive. Although the mainstream has a
substantial impact on how black theatre companies feel they must act there are
many other elements which influence and determine their artistic choices such
as history, race, binary groups and expectation. Nevertheless, this essay has explored
the question whether to become a mainstream success requires changing your
artistic process. Talawa have proven that it is possible, however it is vital
to have a solid mission statement and view and to bare in mind the surrounding
elements that could take influence.

 

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