Debate: State of Black Theatre (1/2)
in Black Voices, New Writing, Reviews and Roundtables, Transcripts
23rd October 2004
DEBATE: THE STATE OF BLACK THEATRE (1/2)
Is there a renaissance? Andrea Enisuoh consults Kwame Kwei-Armah, Steven Luckie and Paulette Randall. Recorded live.
I’m fed up with hearing the words ‘culturally diverse’. People should embrace any kind of theatre.
THE STATE OF BLACK THEATRE: THE THEATREVOICE DEBATE
Is there a renaissance? Andrea Enisuoh consults Kwame Kwei-Armah, Steven Luckie and Paulette Randall.
Recorded: 23 October 2004.
Transcribed by Keyboard Freedom. © theatreVOICE.
Andrea Enisuoh: So first of all I’d introduce Kwame Kwei-Armah, a successful playwright who had his production [of Elmina’s Kitchen] critically acclaimed at The National last year. And he’s got a highly anticipated production coming at The National this December, Fix Up. So, welcome Kwame. On my left I have Paulette Randall who is, in so many guises, great for theatre, but she’s here today as artistic director of Talawa Theatre Company. They are the most established and I’d say most prominent black theatre company in this country. And then we have Steven Luckie… who is the producer of Eclipse Theatre. You’ll hear more about them later, but basically promoting new writing and developing black theatre. As I said, the state of black theatre, it’s such a wide discussion to have… sorry…
Steven Luckie: I was waiting for my applause.
Andrea Enisuoh: I forgot to pause for applause.
Steven Luckie: At last.
Andrea Enisuoh: It’s my fault, sorry about that.
Steven Luckie: It’s alright.
Andrea Enisuoh: So the state of black theatre, a lot of people are saying that there’s a renaissance of black theatre. Certainly over the last year there’s been a huge frenzy of activity, whether we look at the plays like Kwame’s at The National, we look at The Royal Court Theatre’s excellent production of Roy Williams’s Fallout, and so many other things, Eclipse’s Mother Courage, there are certainly a lot of productions out there and we should make the point that they’re not just at the level of The National or The Royal Court, but in communities and community spaces productions are being put on all the time as well. But the first question that I want to throw out is, you know, this idea that there’s a renaissance in black theatre, I want to ask each panellist whether they think that is actually true, and I’m going to start with Steven.
Steven Luckie: I suppose if you look at last year, I mean the two things that really stand out was the productions that happened in London at The National Theatre and The Royal Court, and it started off with Kwame’s Elmina’s Kitchen which was… well, it was breathtaking. I mean I remember going to the theatre, it was wonderful to see not just a Caucasian middle-class audience but actually black people in there, and then watching this extraordinary tale unfolding. And it was wonderful because then of course it caught the headlines and the imagination of a lot of people. Then what happened was, a couple of weeks later at The Royal Court, we’re all watching Fallout, and, you know, I was thinking to myself ‘My God’, you know, Eclipse Theatre is just about to launch its show, how on earth are we going to follow this? Paulette Randall did Moon on a Rainbow Shawl which then went out and toured, and then I think we also had… what else was going on as well?
Paulette Randall: Debbie Green.
Steven Luckie: It was Debbie Tucker Green’s production, Born Bad. So I do think, particularly with the two main institutions in London, the signals that came out was that yes, there was going to be quite a shift. I wouldn’t really say there is a renaissance, because I think we have to wait and see, and I think it does take a little time to create a renaissance, not just a year.
Andrea Enisuoh: Good point. Paulette?
Paulette Randall: I just thought it was kind of like interesting planning on peoples’ part that suddenly, you know, you had three. At one point there was Roy’s, Kwame and Debbie’s plays on at the same time in London. It was like I’m just going to explode, this is fantastic. But you could wait another ten years for that to happen. I think it’s going to be interesting with the Arts Council and their whole change of, you know, that everyone’s got to do something that’s culturally diverse now otherwise you ain’t going to get your money basically. I think that’s going to be interesting, and let’s see what that throws up. But I think no, that was just a fluke for me, there’s no renaissance.
Andrea Enisuoh: Certainly in terms of timing.
Paulette Randall: Oh yes.
Andrea Enisuoh: Kwame, what do you think?
Kwame Kwei-Armah: I mean I think it’s very interesting. I was doing an interview the other day with a professor from Goldsmiths, and she says… so I say ‘her’ as opposed to me, that there were eleven black plays, for what we call black plays, between the end of 2003 and the beginning of 2004. In fact, she calls them the incendiary plays because, in her opinion, they were graded by their rage, which I found a very interesting way of describing them. I think for me to think that from The National and The Court and all the way, and I don’t wish to say down, but all the way out from that, that we could have, during that period of maybe fourteen months, eleven plays on that come from our cultural perspective, for me is a wonderful thing. And so whether we term it as a renaissance or not, what I think it is doing, it is a signal not just to the community from which I herald, to say that actually we are beginning to allow you to tell stories from your own perspective and your own lens and allow it to go into the mainstream. Now there’s a… no, no, no, I think that that is a wonderful indication for the mainstream. The only reason why Paulette, I’ll just before… I’ll just say, is that the idea of a renaissance sometimes doesn’t actually capture, even though it does say that, that we actually stand on the shoulders of many of the plays in the theatre companies that have gone before.. and actually there have been times in London when there has been four and five different black shows where I’ve had to dash from one side of London to the other side to go and see it before.
Paulette Randall: All I was going to say was, that it would be interesting to look at the figures for the amount of black productions the year before in that same period. I suspect it would probably be about the same, the only difference is that we had plays that were in fairly, I mean incredibly established buildings that were suddenly kind of making the news all at the same time. That, for me, was the difference. We’ve always been putting on plays, we’ve always been, you know. When, you know, someone’s… I don’t know, they’ve had no money even, and they’ve just kind of got together and done something, done a reading, done all sorts of things. So that will remain, because it’s always been the way that we’ve had to do it.
Kwame Kwei-Armah: Absolutely, I suppose my…
Paulette Randall: I’m agreeing with you.
Kwame Kwei-Armah: Yes, absolutely, but I suppose my qualification of that is purely, as I said, that it’s kicking-off from the two major establishments and then out.
Steven Luckie: Absolutely…
Paulette Randall: I think it’s going out.
Steven Luckie: I just think that if you’ve got these huge institutions like The National Theatre and The Royal Court simultaneously putting out very, very strong high-quality black productions, and at the same time you’ve got Hampstead Theatre kicking-off with a tremendous piece, and then you go out into the regions into the United Kingdom. And I think you’re doing a disservice to yourself, you directed The Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, it went to, it went around the country, it was critically acclaimed. I just think that’s too much of a fluke, so I do think something was actually happening. And I tend to think it’s to do with either the Labour government or the Theatre Review from the Arts Council of England.
Andrea Enisuoh: Going on to the Theatre Review, I mean I agree with renaissances. Why I’m worried about using terms like that is because of the complacency that it could engender. As you say, theatre’s been going on at black theatre in all sorts of values all over the place.
Steven Luckie: Absolutely.
Andrea Enisuoh: And now because the spotlight, because places like The National have decided that they’re going to showcase work or The Royal Court. Credit to them for doing that, but then it’s deemed acceptable in everybody’s interest.
Paulette Randall: But the thing is, it’s quality work, you know, this is like good writing, they’re not doing us any favours, no one’s, you know, it’s good stuff.
Kwame Kwei-Armah: And also I think it’s phenomenally important that, you know, that my play was not the first black play to be done at The National.
Paulette Randall: No, no, no, of course not, no, I’ve directed a play at The National.
Kwame Kwei-Armah: And, absolutely. Do you know what I mean?
Paulette Randall: That was a long time ago.
Kwame Kwei-Armah: And that in fact, in fact that many of Winsome Pinnock’s plays, and if we’re looking at things within a historical perspective, that it’s important for me to say that… sorry.
Steven Luckie: But it was good that it was a black British person that was actually writing the work and it being seen at The National Theatre, because actually when I was going to The National Theatre, I can’t get in now, I can’t get a ticket. But when I was going to The National Theatre it was, August Wilson, no disrespect…
Paulette Randall: Oh listen, you can’t disrespect the man, but I know exactly what you mean, yes.
Steven Luckie: I…
Paulette Randall: But listen, that’s always been the history though, then it’s always been black America…
Steven Luckie: Yes.
Paulette Randall: That, you know, they’ve kind of gone well they have all these fantastic playwrights and we have… you know.
Kwame Kwei-Armah: Except I would say Winsome you know, I would say Pinnock again is the only, is the difference in that…
Paulette Randall: She’s in the other one, yes.
Kwame Kwei-Armah: The only other one that…
Paulette Randall: That’s one.
Kwame Kwei-Armah: Yes, oh absolutely. It’s not to apologise for it, it’s for acting… it’s for me…
Paulette Randall: Tell a lie, Mustapha did her play on his own.
Kwame Kwei-Armah: Absolutely, he…
Paulette Randall: I just remembered.
Kwame Kwei-Armah: And, but also for me…
Steven Luckie: Playboy of the West Indies.
Kwame Kwei-Armah: Yes, Playboy of the West Indies. But for me it’s important that I go.. and The Coup, yes, correct. And it’s important for me to go, but, again, that still feeds in because actually he’s particularly African-Caribbean, as opposed to necessarily in strict cultural terms…
Paulette Randall: There’s nothing home grown.
Kwame Kwei-Armah: In terms of black British. It’s phenomenally important for me though, and this is a personal objective, for me to understand and to continually state that the explosion and the reason why I use the eleven incendiary plays, are put within the context of climbing on the shoulders of work that has been done. And it’s phenomenally important for me and that’s why I… for me the major thing is actually not even actually for me, that the plays were even done at The National and that the plays were done at The Royal Court. The Royal Court’s been doing black plays for years, you know, for years, they have a huge record of that.
Steven Luckie: Upstairs.
Kwame Kwei-Armah: Upstairs, maybe, yes.
Steven Luckie: But it’s different from being in the…
Kwame Kwei-Armah: No, I agree with that, I agree with that. But I think actually it was about its critical reception, and that’s what I think is the marker over the last eleven months. The critical reception of these, of the plays in the mainstream and then the plays that went out, was markedly different to what had necessarily happened before. Now some may put that down to it is not me, but some may put that down to OK, well the quality of the writing is now such that it can be. I actually don’t put it down to that, I put it down to, and it’s part of what you said Steven, and part of what you’ve said, that our culture in terms of Britain has gone ‘Actually maybe I need to open up my lens…’
Steven Luckie: Absolutely, yes.
Kwame Kwei-Armah: To understand that everything that does not come from my specific cultural lens has to cater exclusively to me.
Paulette Randall: Yes.
Kwame Kwei-Armah: So actually I can do some homework, and in my homework that I do, I can now go oh that’s great, like they do in America with August Wilson.
Paulette Randall: I think also what’s played a big part in it as well is the fact that you look at fashion and you look at music, and the influence that black musicians and artists in their own fields has had, had kind of in a way opened it up for people to think well actually, and it’s not just exclusively black. You know, they’re not just designing clothes for black people. Some people are…
Kwame Kwei-Armah: Pin them on them first.
Paulette Randall: Yes, exactly, exactly. And kind of, you know, and don’t hide away from the fact that that’s who you are and what you’re doing. So I think it’s kind of given a sort of fresher breath. I’ll agree with you that, you know, it’s made people kind of think a little bit further out than they normally would.
Kwame Kwei-Armah: Can I say one other thing, sorry… because I also think that it is important for us to include government on this, because it’s actually about an environment of inclusiveness that allows the Arts Council to create policies that say Decibel, that say open up, that would say we need to do that. It is about a whole… sorry Steven, it is about a whole…
Steven Luckie: I do think you’re absolutely right, not that I want to sort of, you know…
Paulette Randall: Just talk.
Andrea Enisuoh: It’s alright, we will be coming to Eclipse anyway.
Steven Luckie: I think you’re absolutely right and I do think that actually there has been a shift because of the Labour Party and where they’ve put their money, and actually it’s had an effect on the Arts Council of England, and that trickle-down effect has had an effect out in the regions.
Andrea Enisuoh: Steve, I wanted to talk about Eclipse anyway because Eclipse was set up, there was only two.. was it two?
Steven Luckie: We’re on our third year now, on our third production.
Andrea Enisuoh: Three years ago. And that was set-up on the back of a report that talked about a real dire place for black theatre in terms of racism, in terms of not getting work commissioned. What’s changed, has it changed that drastically in three years? Would you say that there’s no need for initiatives like that anymore?
Steven Luckie: No, I think there are needs for initiatives like this, it’s called social engineering. To a point I think it is important to have a level-playing field and I think it is important to support black artists within the industry so they can go forth, like for instance Paulette and Kwame. And I think that’s what’s happened with the Eclipse Theatre, Eclipse Theatre has a particular purpose. And it’s what Jonathan Church said last year when we did the review of the Eclipse, it says it forces theatres to actually address black work in terms of programming, in terms of delivery, and it also focuses those theatres that receive the work to take into consideration the audiences that come through the door. And I think those things are very, very, very important. I mean just to elaborate slightly, there’s been an opportunity for us at the Eclipse to develop writers, and I think that’s really, really important because I want to see more black work from black writers from the United Kingdom. And it’s been like a three-year process and, you know, it’s quite nice when you get the stage after three years to actually be able to handout X amount of commissions knowing that in the future not all of them but some of them may come through. And that will have an impact because it will be a body of work then that will be available for anybody.
Kwame Kwei-Armah: Haven’t you got… what was the number of…?
Steven Luckie: Five…
Kwame Kwei-Armah: Fantastic, fantastic.
Steven Luckie: Five commissions attached to five regional theatres around the county.
Kwame Kwei-Armah: And can I say what I think that’s also terribly fantastic for me is, as all of us and I know particularly I know for Paulette and I know that with you, my writing began in the regions and it’s, you know, I was Writer in Residence at the Bristol Old Vic for two years. And what’s tremendously interesting about that is, actually as much as the battle, and we talk about the explosion of work in London, that actually the battle I have perceived is actually harder in regions to get your work commissioned. Because actually there’s a kind of cosmopolitan feel that if you can, if you can kind of break that in London and kind of go, you know, hey young trendy fashionable people, come and see this whatever race you are. Often I have found that in the regions it is much harder to get a black commission, because actually the perceived wisdom has been that many of the host community, for want of a better term, would often look at the programme and go OK, well that’s not for me and I’ll skip that one and I’ll go the next one.
Steven Luckie: Absolutely.
Kwame Kwei-Armah: So consequently, even if the Artistic Director wants to put… says this is a great play, goes economically can I afford to do it? Because is there a black audience that’s going to come in…
Paulette Randall: They still ask that question, you know.
Kwame Kwei-Armah: No, of course they do. But I’m… they do, and I’m saying, that’s why I said that the five that you’ve just got is a phenomenal thing.
Steven Luckie: Moon on a Rainbow Shawl was actually selling that out to the regions, it was precisely what you referred to, nobody wanted the work. And it took me five months to get three theatres to commit, and those weren’t… that didn’t include the producing theatres. Then of course, the reason why I think there has been a slight shift is that after a year, after the success of your show out in the regions, actually then approaching regional theatres and saying look, I’ve got another show etc, it then took two months. And then this time round with Roy’s play, which is about to tour the UK, it took one day. So I do think there is a shift and I do think theatres are actually recognising that there is cultural diverse work, but I have to put it in the context, those are the theatres that we’ve been courting and those are the theatres that buy in to the Eclipse initiative. There are other theatres that are just plainly not interested and it is still very, very difficult for that work to be programmed on the middle scale in regional theatres.
Kwame Kwei-Armah: And would you say that is a problem with the theatre management or, and their… oh yes, and their perception of their audiences, or with their audiences? Sorry, was that question unclear? Sorry.
Steven Luckie: No, not at all, not all. Paulette, do you want to… I could answer that, I can answer that.
Paulette Randall: No, go ahead.
Steven Luckie: I think it’s with the, I think it is with the management, I think they perceive culturally diverse work as risk, I’ve said this before, and they’re concerned about the bums on the seats, they’re also concerned about the demographic makeup because maybe some of these rural places have all white people. It doesn’t mean to say that they should not be interested in culturally diverse work and that’s..
Kwame Kwei-Armah: But are they?
Steven Luckie: Well they should be because culturally diverse work, as far as I’m concerned, is something that’s really quite important, just like Shakespeare, just like..
Paulette Randall: It’s not even, you know, sometimes we go I don’t know, I get fed up with hearing ‘culturally diverse’. If people like theatre then they should be able to, they should be embracing any kind of theatre that’s there on offer, you know, and it’s about educating people. If we have to do that, then we have to educate these people and say look, this is not just about doing things that reflect you, this is about doing things that’s going to move you, that’s going to maybe educate you, that’s going to do all sorts of things, and that’s what theatre’s about. The minute we start to get too kind of consumed in all the other things that we need to be doing and ticking boxes, we can lose site of that. And that thing is, for me, very precious and the reason why I’m still doing what I do, ultimately.
Steven Luckie: Absolutely.
Andrea Enisuoh: I remember when you took over at Talawa you were quite excited about the idea of touring and that would be the next level that you wanted to…
Paulette Randall: I wanted to.
Andrea Enisuoh: I was going to ask, by your face I get that answer to that one. How difficult has that been?
Paulette Randall: Oh impossible, because Talawa hasn’t really been touring for a number of years and also they’re… we, I say ‘they’, we are also caught up in a capital project. So the notion of kind of setting up tours and kind of running up and down the country is not really going to happen. I just don’t like the idea of being London-centric, as much as a Londoner I am and I love it and always tell people I’m very proud of being a Londoner, I don’t think that we should be too London centric with our work. Especially if we’re going to walk around saying, you know, Talawa is the leading black theatre company in Britain, and no bugger in Britain has seen us. Then I think it’s a bit much to kind of have that claim.
Andrea Enisuoh: OK.
Paulette Randall: So what I’m intending to do is alright, if I can’t tour, then maybe I can do co-productions with other companies in the regions so that we do our work. We play one venue in London and hopefully our new venue when we get it, but we also take the work out to, whether it’s Leeds or, you know, wherever, but we manage to do the work that way. So it’s not necessarily touring, but it would be getting out of London.
Andrea Enisuoh: OK. On this issue of new audiences, I mean certainly at The National we saw new… for the first time in many cases, blacks going into the theatre to watch those productions, and at The Royal Court too. But I know that an awful lot of work was put in to getting those people to go into those theatres. What I want to look at now is how we’re going to sustain these new audiences, and I’m talking particularly about black theatre-goers who, some of them wouldn’t have ever considered going to the theatre before and then ended up at The Royal Court. How are we going to sustain that, Kwame?
Kwame Kwei-Armah: Well I think the very first thing to say is that with Elmina’s Kitchen, that the publicity department worked phenomenally hard and it came down right from the top, from the very top of the gig, from Nick Hytner and Nick Starr. They were like ‘We need to make sure that we get the right balance of this audience, which means that we go out… ‘and some quite controversial stuff that I won’t go into. Decisions were made to guarantee to make sure that this relatively inaccessible black audience to this venue, and that’s very, my words are very specific, are attracted and can find an access route to it. And I think that how we sustain that is, again, looking at The National, and I keep going to that because I know it, is that the whole remit was to create new audiences. Now a specific remit with Elmina was to make sure that there was an audience that reflected the people that were on stage. However, I remember once having a meeting sitting there going, well in order to get new young people we need loads of new plays like Elmina. Well actually that was wrong, because actually what we need is one play that gets you into the habit, another play that convinces you that it’s a good habit, and than actually, you know, you’re going to see Ibsen, you’re going to go and see Chekhov, you’re going to see all of it because you’ve got the taste, because you’ve got the bug, because you’re going this is a wonderful experience. And so in a kind of way what I think in my unqualified opinion, is that we need to make sure that right from the very top that there is an ethos that understands that this is hitherto for our particular venues an audience that had not had immediate access. The reason why I keep going back to these institutions is because there’s a theatre company called Blue Mountain, their work is not necessarily the kind that moves me…
Paulette Randall: Yes, fair enough.
Kwame Kwei-Armah: However, they have a tremendous ethos and they have a tremendous, they have tremendous success at getting young and actually all ages of black people in to the theatre to see plays that you’d go I can’t believe you went to see that. But actually they’ve gone, and you see a man that you think is going to a ragamuffin dance, and he’s dressing up to go and see a Blue Mountain play. Now the reason why they’re going to see a Blue Mountain play is because it’s very specifically aimed at them and very specifically targeted at them in its language, in its presentation, in its marketing. And I think that, not to ramble on, but I think that we have to keep, that the way that we’ll be able to keep the black audiences that are new, is to continue to program things that they find accessible but also not to just talk down to them and go, the only time that I think that you’re going to come to the show is when you’ve got a black play. But they’re actually saying the reason why we’re targeting you is because we believe that theatre is the most powerful medium in the world and once you’ve been bitten, once you’ve got the bug, you ain’t gonna let it go.
Steven Luckie: But also you’ve got to take into consideration the environment to which they’re coming to, and some of the theatres actually around the country are just not, I personally find very uncomfortable because I don’t feel as if I actually belong. So if you take your average black kid or black person walking in to one of those theatres, it can be pretty difficult.
Paulette Randall: There are lots of things that you have to deal with, you know, I talked to some kids down in the East End and they don’t go outside of their area let alone to go to see a play, do you know what I mean? Their idea of going south of the river is just, it just doesn’t happen. What are you going there for? So to go and see a play, if that’s not kind of within any kind of experience of theirs, it’s very difficult. So I think that with the work that’s happened, I completely agree with what Kwame and Steven were saying, but on top of that I think we also have to in some way, even though once we’ve got them there, I think we still have to kind of challenge them if we can in some way. You know, because I think it’s not enough to just kind of give them what they want, which is what Blue Mountain do, which is fine. You know, because people have said to me ‘Well would you do a Blue Mountain, but it’s not my kind of thing…’ I’m not saying it’s wrong, you know, I never went to see No Sex Please We’re British, I don’t like those kinds of things, but they run and they’re very popular. That works, that’s great. What I’m trying to do, and I know what the others are trying to do, is slightly different to that and there’s nothing wrong with that, and I am forever hopefully challenging our audience on whatever level, even if it’s just this is not quite what you expected or this is dealing with a subject matter that you might not agree with.
Kwame Kwei-Armah: Can I say that I also think though that the challenge is ours, and I will say it and I’m not excluding myself from that but certainly with Paulette and certainly with Steve here, that many actually of the black practitioners are actually taking on the challenge of what I call the Blue Mountain challenge. Which is we’ve got them in, now can you take them on.
Paulette Randall: Yes, yes.
Kwame Kwei-Armah: And actually there’s a real challenge in that, because if they can actually get them to come to Hackney and to come to Southwark, then actually the challenge is then with us to be able to find the material, to find the environment that allows them go well you know what…
Paulette Randall: But it has to be the story that you want to tell as well, doesn’t it?
Kwame Kwei-Armah: Well no, but of course, but in a kind of way it must be the story that you want to tell, but also in part of the thinking of an institution. I mean I’m not going to sit down there and go ‘I want to bring a Blue Mountain audience so I’m going to write this story’, but I think from institutions’ point of views I think that it is, for me anyway, it seems quite important that we all take the challenge on that. How do we move them from pulp fiction to a novel, and that is a fundamental challenge, I think.
Paulette Randall: Absolutely, that’s a challenge, yes.
Andrea Enisuoh: OK, new writing, we talked a bit about new writing, it was mentioned. There are some people who will say that Kwame Kwei-Armah can get a play on at The National but there are a lot of other writers who can’t, and that is something that is said, complaints obviously. But what I want to address is whether the new writing is coming through and also the quality of the writing, because some people would just say I’m not commissioning it because they’re, you know, they’re racist there. I want to talk about what sort of writing is coming through, are there new voices as well?
Paulette Randall: Another interesting thing right, just very quickly before I forget, and sorry, I’m interrupting you. I had this meeting with some audience feedback people from the BBC, because I’ve just been doing The Crouchs in the summer, and there was terrible, terrible reaction and reviews for the sitcom last year. So this year they got me involved and I had three black writers working on it and, you know, hopefully it does mean that it’s going to make a big difference. But I went to this thing, this feedback thing with lots of these people, audience members who kind of watch all these shows for the BBC, and one of them said to me, you know, well we had Baby Father and that’s gone now and Patrick Augustus didn’t get a chance to, you know, write any of his series. And I said to them listen, I’m sorry, I just have to say this, Did you read the novel? No, no, I didn’t read the novel. So I said Well then if you didn’t read the novel, then I think you will know why he didn’t write his own series. We have to, if no one else is going to say it then I’m going to say it, we have to know there’s, you know, there’s quality to work. Just because you write something and you want to get it done, it doesn’t mean that you can go and big up yourself and say ‘Why isn’t The National doing my work? ‘ Is it any good? No, I’m serious because for a long time, years ago when it wasn’t Time Out it was City Limits, you could go up and read your address book, and simply because you were black you got a rave review. I mean that’s the kind of.. we have to move on, we have to be honest enough to say what we consider to be good and quality work and stand by that, otherwise we will get caught up in that whole thing. So maybe, you know, the person who’s thinking why isn’t my play… maybe they have to go away and work some more. They’ve only heard about Kwame since he’s been at The National, some of them, he’s been working for years, he hasn’t just come today, so, you know.
Kwame Kwei-Armah: And I’m pleased that you put it in that way.
Paulette Randall: I just get fed up because, and a lot of the time we’re not brave enough to say actually that person isn’t any good, because they’re black. ‘You’re no good. You could get better if you work and if you’re prepared to do the work, but right now, today, no.’
Kwame Kwei-Armah: No, Steven, go ahead.
Steven Luckie: I was going to say I do agree with that and I do think it is important when it comes to writing, irrespective of who you are. I don’t think it’s a colour thing, it’s about actually how could you…
Paulette Randall: Thank you.
Steven Luckie: It is about the craft, it is about really understanding the craft and knowing the techniques that are there in order to execute an exceptionally good story. So everything that you’ve said is absolutely spot-on, and I don’t think it’s acceptable to just put on a play for the sake of putting on a play, it’s an absolute wrong. I strive in my own personal world for supreme excellence, and I think you do Paulette…
Paulette Randall: And so does Kwame.
Steven Luckie: And so does Kwame and so does Roy. And those I, I think those wonderful messages are coming out and saying to those up and coming individuals actually we want you to do exactly the same.
Andrea Enisuoh: OK. Kwame, were you going to say something?
Kwame Kwei-Armah: No, I suppose I was just going to echo. I get that quite a lot where people go yes, but Kwame, you can get, I don’t know, your toilet paper commissioned, you know, because…and actually, but what’s really, really interesting was pre-Elmina’s Kitchen I could not get a London commission. I had very good reviews for my play which I had at the Bristol Old Vic, I had good reviews for my adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac in Coventry, and every London theatre I sent my script to would say no. And nearly, nearly everybody who now asks me for commissions were people who then said at the time no, I don’t like your writing. And there’s two things about that, number one I have improved, because actually I took my craft seriously and I went to college and did a masters in screen writing, and actually I did improve and that made a vast difference. For me, one of the things that I judge new black writing on is actually there is all of the technical things and I think we need to, and as Paulette said quite emphatically and quite correctly, is that actually I take all that as read, all of the technical, you better have your technique down, you better understand it. We can fail, but you better, you better know…
Paulette Randall: Absolutely, absolutely.
Kwame Kwei-Armah: When I talk to you about a turning point, I want to know that you know what that is in your play. When you talk to me about, you know, about your act two climax, I need to know you know technically what you are doing. But what I judge black writing for is actually by how culturally specific, how realistic, how true to the community from which it has come from that that piece of work is. Because we have a history across the board or across the mediums of art of successful work from minorities being the work that is most understood by the host community, by the buying community. And so for me the criteria is not just about, and so it should be, about quality, but it’s also about how true to yourself are you being in this piece, how true to the community from which you have come from, or is this a vanity piece in which you are actually just using the cover of black in order, or a cover of Africa, the cover of whatever, in order to get the squeeze because we know that we’re now living in an environment where if you’re half-way good and you’re black people might just listen. And it’s very important, that’s what I judge new work by, it’s what I judge myself by. And, you know, I’m in the middle of doing my final draft before I go into rehearsal on Monday, so you know I’m doing that judging a lot at the moment, and I judge myself by that criteria, how true and I being to myself.
Andrea Enisuoh: OK.
Steven Luckie: I want to ask a question about the risk of new writing in terms of programming around the country, and I want to draw reference to one writer, Roy Williams who won awards, BAFTAs, whatever, and I find it absolutely crazy in 2004 that the Eclipse Theatre is the only organisation that’s actually taken his work on the middle scale and touring it around the country. It’s never happened before, so what is going on? So on the one hand when we talk about this wonderful renaissance, it comes to an absolute halt when you look at a successful writer who is extremely good at his craft, but yet theatres are not taking the risk to actually programme his work, unless you’ve got an initiative like mine. So it is worrying because, I can only speak for myself and I can only speak for my organisations, you know, that… I don’t know if you could talk about, Paulette, about why are the reasons that Talawa are not touring around the country?
Paulette Randall: As I said before, Talawa haven’t really been touring for a while, I think they’ve done like residencies or, you know, I think they’ve done a show that was in London and then at Bristol Old Vic, and I think they’ve always kind of had a residence. Well, not residence, they’ve just gone out and performed in one other venue somewhere else. My background is doing shows up and down the country, and so really because that’s what I loved doing, I wanted to bring that in to Talawa and do that but, as I said, because of the Capital Project, we’ve not really been able to do that.
Kwame Kwei-Armah: Can I make an observation?
Andrea Enisuoh: Briefly, yes, then I want to throw it out to the audience.
Kwame Kwei-Armah: OK, oh yes, of course, of course. Can I say, I think it’s very interesting because I know, if I may, that I know that Paulette actually did something which I think is.. which will let us know.. sorry, go ahead.
Paulette Randall: No, no, no, go on.
Kwame Kwei-Armah: I think Paulette did something that will solidify whether we are having a renaissance or whether this is something that is just vacuous and of today or is futuristic. And you’ve done it Steve, in terms of doing plays, remounting plays that have come from the black well, and that’s what’s important, is that when a lot of these projects.. at the moment we often just keep thinking about new writing and hence ignore the wealth of great work that has gone before because it’s not rehashed, it is only contemporary, it is only valued today. And the most important thing for me is that if you go into my library and you’ll see plays dating back from the 1920s, I’ve got Carter C Woodhouse’s critical anthologies on the eighteen plays that were happening at the Harlem, at the beginning of the Harlem renaissance. These plays are not done again, so I come up as a new writer and who do I go to? I’d have to go to other playwrights, I have no one to go to. Even for me to find these books, you know, and I’ve been earning OK, I’ve got to go and find them and paying quite big money for them. And actually the plays are not being done again, they’re disposable and like pop music, anything that is deposable becomes nothing.
Andrea Enisuoh: OK, alright.
Paulette Randall: That’s exactly… now I’ve just remembered what I was going to say which is, it’s about creating our own classics and it’s about remounting productions so that people… you know, at the end of the day we’re in danger of Kwame having, you know, a back catalogue that doesn’t… but you only see it if you’re in London.
Steven Luckie: Right.
Andrea Enisuoh: Yes, yes.
Paulette Randall: And so the rest of the country or the rest of the world are in danger of not knowing his work, and the same for all the others.
Andrea Enisuoh: Alright, I just want to open it up to the audience now. If anybody’s got any questions to the panel, any comments that they’d like to make.
Steven Luckie: We’ve been having a lovely discussion, we’re just going to have our tea.
Paulette Randall: Absolutely.
Audience: Could I ask Paulette, if you could describe a bit more what you’re actually doing on your Capital Project and how it might impact on all the things that you’ve talked about over the next few years.
Paulette Randall: How are we doing on the Capital Project? Well we’re still… we’re at the very, very early stages really, we’ve been given a certain amount of money from the Arts Council, the LDA and the Millennium Commission. There is a site, and it’s the site of the old Westminster Theatre in Victoria. It’s going to be, it’s been bought by these developers and it is going to be a two hundred and fifty-seater theatre. What else do you want to know? But we will of course, you know. Talawa will be at home there, but it will actually be a building for all of us because it won’t just be Talawa work being produced there.
Audience: So how much of the time do you imagine that you’ll be there and how much..?
Paulette Randall: I don’t know, I suppose in the early stages it’ll probably be mainly our work, because it’s going to take time to kind of programme, for people to know that we’re there and what kind of.. you know, because it does, these things take time, I’ve been told, I’ve never done it before. But I suppose the main bulk of it will be Talawa to begin with, but then eventually it will be… well already I’ve started talking to people like Nitro and to Motiroti and to, you know, Kali and to Tamasha, so there are all these, Yellow Earth, there are all these other companies that already know that we’re going to be there. Of course they’re going great, that means that we can have a venue in London, which is perfect. And it also means that the work that happens in the regions that, you know, I can happily get on a train and go to, it means that that can come to London as well. And then we go international and then it’s the universe.
Andrea Enisuoh: World domination.
Paulette Randall: So we’ll be coming to you for money soon, not right now, but we will be coming to you for some money.
Audience: I just have a very quick question to ask about the West End… I wondered whether the panel felt that if the renaissance was… if we want to call it a renaissance, is to be truly achieved, that somewhere along the line commercial producers in the West End have got to go this is worth selling, this is a really good play. I mean a lot of people complain that Roy Williams’s play FallOut and Kwame’s play Elmina’s Kitchen didn’t go into the West End, or maybe we’re all terribly naïve. But it seems to me that the time was right for that to happen, and it didn’t. Would you like to see that happening in the West End, or is it kind of irrelevant to you?
Steven Luckie: I would like it to go out into the regions first, because there are an awful lot of people around the country would actually like access to that work before it even gets into the West End, and I think that needs to be addressed before we actually start talking about the West End. The West End is an easy option, because at the end of the day it’s money and there’s lots of Americans who can come over here and buy those seats, but there are people around the country who need to see Talawa’s work and also need to see Kwame’s work as well. So it’s just, concentrating on London is a luxury, you know, London is just one region out of many around the UK. And remember, there are lots of people who will buy into theatre around the UK.
Andrea Enisuoh: OK. Kwame?
Kwame Kwei-Armah: For me it’s a two-fold thing. It goes back to my question at the beginning, who do we blame, the commercial management or the audiences? Because if commercial managements think that they can get, that they can be successful… believe me, there’s a hundred, you know, they’re not going to go ‘I’m not going to produce your play because I think it’s black’, they’re actually going to sit there and go ‘I’m unsure if I can get the overwhelming majority of the theatre-going audience that I would need to come and see your play to come in and actually pay for a play that is not from their cultural lens’. Now it’s different with a musical because there is a long tradition of the black musical, but the black serious play coming into the West End, that’s the last bastion of white supremacy really. It’s a bit like, to finally allow that to happen would be to admit that ‘They’re here and they’ve arrived and that they can actually do it, they can actually technically craft plays that are worthy’. I think that there have been many plays, not just my own and not just Roy’s, there have been many plays in London that have come on, that actually I know personally, many West End producers have done to and sat in and gone this is a brilliant show, and scratched their heads and gone how can I do the maths to get this in. But actually it’s not until our country, our population as a whole actually says ‘I’m willing to take a risk and hear that this is a good play, that this is a good evening out, and I will then travel in to the West End to see that, and I can tell my next door neighbour that I saw a blah, blah, blah play, and it all feeds in to all of that’, that things will actually change. So my issue is actually, is more with our audiences than it is with our producers.
Audience: Sorry to butt in, but is it a white audience, I mean is it white audience or is it a black audience, because if you extrapolate from the plays that have been emerging in the last few years, particularly yours, there’s a sense that you could imagine that theatre was just deemed too un-cool for people to go and see it, it’s just not in the culture.
Kwame Kwei-Armah: I think there’s two things. As I said, I used the Blue Mountain example actually where many people who go to dancehalls and would never think of theatre, go to see those plays. I think it is a challenge to both the white audiences in terms of them not going oh my God, this isn’t for me, and also a challenge for the black audiences to claim not only the institutions like The National and The Royal Court, but to claim West End theatres, to say that this is territory that I fear not to tread in to. So therefore that commercial producers can go, even if the white audience does not do it I’ll know there will be enough black theatre punters that can fill that gap. The challenge is two-fold to the whole of the population.
Andrea Enisuoh: Did you want to say anything.
Paulette Randall: No.
Andrea Enisuoh: OK. Yes?
Audience: Just two things, one, I wonder whether in fact the acceptance of black theatre now, particularly by the white community, is partly because the white community is accepting black people as part of their own lives. It’s not a matter of integration. That may partly be because there have been so many other incoming races or, you know, the Eastern Europeans etc, particularly in London. And this is possibly affecting certain areas of the country in that they know think we go and see a black play, which is about us because it’s about people in our own community. And that may be a good thing, I’m not sure. The other thing I’d like to raise is Blue Mountain with its very specific audience, is so different from people going to the white theatre. If you go to the white theatre, these days we are trying to get new audiences and we’re trying to stop it being smart and snobby. Go to a Blue Mountain show and everybody is dressed-up to the nines to go out for a very special night out. It’s two totally different approaches to going to the theatre.
Kwame Kwei-Armah: Can I? I think I didn’t articulate myself properly. When I mean that people were dressing-up to the nines, they were dressing-up to the nines in the clothes that they would dress-up to go to a discotheque, to go to a club, which is slightly different to the dress-up clothes that they might perceive that they have to wear if they were going in to the West End. Do you see what I’m saying? And it’s about actually cultural definition, because I believe fundamentally that we, in what they call the high arts, wish it to be the popular arts, and that actually what Blue Mountain are doing, in my opinion, not necessarily with the material but with the audience that they get in, is making what is perceived as the higher arts, the popular arts. So actually I’m saying, I think I was saying quite the contrary and not that I… I think I’ve said Blue Mountain too much.
Audience: I go to a Blue Mountain show and I feel I look so tatty, you know, but in…
Kwame Kwei-Armah: I’m glad you go, I’m glad you go. How many do you see?
Audience: In the white theatre one is trying to all the time to sort of…
Kwame Kwei-Armah: Scale-down.
Audience: Because the youngsters say we don’t want to go…
Paulette Randall: But, you know, you’ve had years of having where people used to get dressed-up to go to the theatre…
Audience: I like to dress-up to go to the theatre.
Paulette Randall: So still dress-up, you know, I think that should be your call, do whatever you want to do. But, you know, I talk to my white contemporaries and depending on what your background was as well, whether or not you went to the theatre, if you’re working-class or middle-class, you know, and also what you wore. It was a big event to go to the theatre, so you got dressed-up because you were spending money. You know, it was the ticket, it was all the other stuff, but for working-class people it was about this is a big event and I want to look my best.
Audience: I was thinking in terms of if one’s going to attract a Blue Mountain audience…
Paulette Randall: Well…
Audience: Let’s keep, you know…
Paulette Randall: I don’t know, did the same people that went to see No Sex Please We’re British go to see Waiting for Godot? I don’t know, I doubt it.
Andrea Enisuoh: Steve, just knowing the work that Eclipse has done in getting all sorts of people to watch black plays, I just wanted to deal with that, is it because we’re accepted now?
Steven Luckie: I was thinking about this on the train and actually, at the end of the day, I was actually looking at some data, I was looking at Nitro’s tour, was it…?
Paulette Randall: Slamdunk.
Steven Luckie: Slamdunk, and I was look at our Mother Courage. And actually if you look at the figures, if you look at theatres that actually work a lot with the black community, when it compared to.. all you have to do is take Slamdunk, they did exceptionally well in terms of getting a black turnout. And then if you looked at my show that went there, it didn’t do as well. So I was saying to myself, I think there still needs to be an awful lot of work out in the regions in terms of audience development to target black people, not just people to come and see cultural diverse as well, but to target black people. Because I just don’t think many black people feel that comfortable about coming to the theatre, I don’t think that they completely identify with coming to the theatre. And I’m only talking about the regions, it might be slightly different in London, but certainly out in the regions it is very, very difficult to encourage black people to come out to the theatre. So you need to come up with a wide range of very interesting exciting initiatives to attract them. I only think that we’ve only just started to do that, I don’t actually think that we’ve achieved the level that I’d like to achieve.
Audience: I’m not sure about this idea of a renaissance, because to have a renaissance you’ve got to have a birth first, and I can’t remember a time where there was.. you mentioned Harlem renaissance Kwame, and that was a definitive period of time in Harlem where the intellectual and dramatic and songs, everything, made for that grand moment in time that hasn’t come back yet. At the end of the day we can’t just have a chip on our shoulder and say look man, they don’t want a Rasta to play a lawyer, you know what I’m saying? We’ve got to create an environment in which we can function, and sometimes that takes a lot of strategy. So I’ve begun to work relentlessly every month that black history comes around, every October, you know, morning to night we’ve got things to do all over the place.
Andrea Enisuoh: Paulette?
Paulette Randall: No, don’t ask me first, I’m sitting thinking what he was saying.
Andrea Enisuoh: Kwame, do you want to take that?
Kwame Kwei-Armah: I have a slight difficulty with, as I stated, with the word renaissance at the top. Only because actually to me they’re actually was a birth in my experience, and a burst as well as a birth of very good black plays in the 80s, for me. I would go to see… maybe even before that, but I know as a young actor at the beginning there were many plays that I could go and see in the work of black theatre co-op up and down the country. The work of Talawa that was going on, the work of Temba that was going on, the work of… what was the other…? There were five or six different companies that nearly every month or every few months that I could go and see really interesting work by them. And so, but it was not culturally celebrated in the way in which the eleven incendiary plays have been of last summer. But I would link those plays to a bigger thing that is happening in the nation for me, I actually think we are at the onset of a black British renaissance, artistic renaissance. And that doesn’t just mean within theatre, that means within music, if I look at the works of Dizzee Rascal, and if I look at literature and I look at… we have our own theologians writing the most brilliant, brilliantly challenging work at the moment, and I think across the artistic and thinking spectrum of the black community, we have what I believe is the onset of a most wonderful renaissance that I believe will be challenged and will be catalogued much in the same way if we can continue, much in the same way that the Harlem renaissance was particularly for African Americans. As I say, we have a raft of award winning artists in every category in the last two years whose work have been equal to anything produced by anybody of any other culture. So I think actually we are living in such a time.
Andrea Enisuoh: Thanks.
Paulette Randall: I think the key to what you’re saying as well, for me that’s really important is a catalogue, is to kind of make sure that those things are there. I, you know, I don’t know how many times I’ve had phone calls where people have said do you have a copy of this yet. We don’t even have it documented, so, you know, archive and all of that is crucial if we are going to talk about having any kind of renaissance.
Audience: Is there a suspicion, some of the recent plays that have been getting most attention have been about, you know, gang culture or the kind of pressures of living within the black community, they’re not… maybe there’s a difference in the 80s generation and this generation that they’re more, they’re talking more about the experience of living within the community rather than what it’s like to be on the receiving end of racism or whatever. But I mean Fix Up sounds to me like a play that’s not, just doesn’t fit into that, into this, whatever way you want to call it about gang culture or gun culture, it’s a different species. Maybe that’s another cause for celebration, that it’s not being about those things.
Kwame Kwei-Armah: Again, not having quite got to the end of the draft yet, I don’t know what it fits in to. But I mean I have of course, but I mean I’m doing the rehearsal draft right now, but I would say very quickly because I think that’s what that indication was, that for me it was very important that in my second play… I mean it’s not, but my second London play, Elmina being the first one ..that actually that I did not, that I didn’t place on myself the pressure of having to be a chronicler of modern life, of modern interior life. That actually that I would far rather chronicle the theatre of my front room and the theatre of my community, not just in terms of woes but in terms of its intellectual heritage. And that’s why it’s placed in a political black book shop that at its very core is talking about, is saying, demonstrating, that we have a rich literary tradition within the community from which I herald and that that is just the basis for which I move on. And I should also just say finally that for me I aim to, and I don’t know if I will do this, but I aim to write a trilogy of plays with what I perceive are the black institutions. Elmina was set in a West Indian restaurant, Fix Up is set in a political book store, the next one will either be in a church or a betting shop. And actually that each one of those will deal with a different socioeconomic class and deal with… because we all don’t exist within that. And if I were just to write only working and underclass characters, I don’t think I’d be doing justice to the kind of work that I want to do. However, that doesn’t mean that it might not be received in the way where they go oh God, I wish he’d just go back and start writing about gangs.
Paulette Randall: I was going.. yes.
Audience: Can I just ask the panel about sort of do they do any work with theatre in education in schools to try and sort of access some of the black kids who, you know, dramas and arts have been marginalised in schools now and lot of youth centres have closed down. Just to find out, you know, what sort of work do you do to try and sort of encourage young black people to express themselves through drama and actually sort of start writing and go in to the theatres?
Andrea Enisuoh: I’d like you to answer this very briefly.
Paulette Randall: OK, I’ll be really brief. At Talawa we do, we have an educational officer or manager, and we do a young people’s theatre scheme that is the whole of the summer, where they do devised work that then gets performed. We also do writing workshops in various schools around London. We’re doing our first Christmas show, not a panto or an adaptation or anything like that, just a show at Christmas time for younger kids, which we’ve never done before, from six to ten year olds. We’re doing as much as we can at the moment without our own base, once we get our own home we’ll be able to develop much more of that work, but we are actively doing it. And alongside all the major productions that we do, we have workshops and other kind of associated works through the educational department that works in tandem with our main shows.
Steven Luckie: With the Eclipse, as I said, we’re in our third year. The last couple of years, we had workshops and also small shows that go out as well with the main show, and it would be specifically to encourage young black people. But not just young black people, young kids, full stop, to come into the theatre. Because obviously they’re the ones who are going to takeover, you know. They’re the ones who are going to be coming to the theatre in the future and it’s absolutely important that we encourage them to come in to the theatres. This time round, what we’re doing is we’ve got a couple of workshops which we go out to schools etc, and work with young people, and then of course they would come and see the main show. So I think in terms of education, I’ve always said it’s really, really, really important and we must never, never forget that because they are the future audience.
Kwame Kwei-Armah: And can I just quickly say that I personally, as not being necessarily associated with an institution though I actually am..
Paulette Randall: Yes, you are.
Kwame Kwei-Armah: That I actually am, and in that capacity I’m proud to say that I have a proud association with Talawa and soon to be Eclipse, which I’m tremendously proud of. But also just within my own person particularly during this month, which I pray that I don’t every have another show opening at the end of, or going into rehearsal when Black History Month’s going on because it just is exhausting. But I go into nearly all of the schools in Haringey, I go into a lot of the schools up and down the country from Coventry to Glasgow and do workshops with young people and particularly young black people. I work in prisons as well as everywhere really, I go in where I’m called to go in and do exactly that, workshops with young people and all people, to pass on the bug of theatre, to pass on the bug of art, to pass on the bug of the elevating power of what we do.
Steven Luckie: I think you’re absolutely right.
Andrea Enisuoh: I wanted to end with a question to the panel of what you can recommend that we should look forward to. Kwame Fix Up, I think, if you can get a ticket that is, but try very hard. And you two?
Steven Luckie: I’m going to…
Andrea Enisuoh: Recommendations?
Steven Luckie: Recommendation for a show?
Andrea Enisuoh: Yes.
Steven Luckie: Well there’s Roy Williams’s show that we’re producing, and it’s going to come to London a the Hampstead Theatre, and it’s called Little Sweet Thing, and it’s an incredibly powerful story. And that’s all I’ve go to say about it.
Andrea Enisuoh: OK, thank you.
Paulette Randall: Oh, and we’ve got something coming up next year which is going to challenge… having interesting conversations with some of my board. It’s a play that’s set in a drag club in Trinidad during carnival. It’ll be very interesting.
Andrea Enisuoh: OK, I’d like to thank everyone for coming and taking part. On behalf of Theatre Voice and The Theatre Museum, thanks a lot.