UK Black Actors Make Main Stage – But Could Be Better

Lenny Henry and Ashley Zhangazha

Lenny Henry and Ashley Zhangazha in a scene from Fences, the first West End play to have a black female director. Photograph: Nobby Clark

The barriers may not be crashing down, but this summer the West End’s slow progress towards the day when all stage doors are wide open to black performers and directors will pass a significant landmark.

Three black shows are to run at mainstream London venues at the same time, and Paulette Randall will be the first black woman director to take a play to a big West End theatre.

This month Lenny Henry will star at the Duchess Theatre in Randall’s new all-black production of Fences, an American play by August Wilson; while at the National, the cast of James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner, led by television star Marianne Jean-Baptiste, will face press critics on Tuesday.

A new musical adaptation of The Color Purple, the Pulitzer prizewinning novel by Alice Walker, is also in rehearsal for an all-black opening at the Menier in early July.

“In the late 1980s, when I set up Crucial Films to help black performers and writers, I was told that one day it would all be different, and these issues would be a memory. Well, to be honest it hasn’t happened yet,” said Henry this weekend, taking a break from preparations for his London premiere. “It is not beyond the wit of British black playwrights to come up with more work for us too.

“After all, we have been in this country long enough now, going back to that trumpeter in the court of King John. We have staying power. There are thousands of stories to tell about black involvement.”

Henry has already toured in acclaimed preview performances of Fences, seemingly concentrating, he notes, on towns with largely white populations. “We played first in Bath, then in Mold in Wales and in Richmond. Places with no blacks.”

Eight years ago Kwame Kwei-Armah became the first black British playwright to have a show, Elmina’s Kitchen, on in the West End. Yet despite a gradual increase in the black plays staged, the casts working in theatreland remain almost as white as its audiences. Subsidised or fringe venues, such as the Young Vic, the Royal Court, or the Trafalgar Studios (where Homeland‘s David Harewood played Martin Luther King to rave reviews in The Mountaintop three years ago), have been the regular homes for black work.

Black performers have also found work in the succession of popular “juke box musicals” that chronicle the history of American music. Soul Sister, about the life and music of Tina Turner, is the latest such crowdpleaser. Henry, who won West End plaudits in 2009 for his portrayal of Othello in a Northern Broadsides production at the Trafalgar Studios, believes London theatre should be in the vanguard of change, rather than dragging behind television and film.

“Theatre is actually more able to do this because there is often less money at stake and less lengthy a development period,” he said. “I would just like it to be a more level playing field. If you want to get a tough guy for a show or a film, you could go to Daniel Craig, or to Idris Elba, and they could slug it out between them.

“I wish it could always be a question of the best person for the part, but some directors still approach their go-to tough guy, or whatever, and that person is often white. They don’t think of anybody else. There are more choices now, whether it is Adrian Lester, David Oyelowo or Sanjeev Bhaskar. They are actors who might smash any role out of the park and they should be considered.”

Randall, his director, is equally dissatisfied, but she does want to celebrate the progress made. “It is fantastic these shows are on, but the question is when will it happen again?” she asked this weekend. “It is still newsworthy, so things haven’t changed that much. There is still black theatre and then there is theatre, not white theatre, and that is tedious, to say the least.”

Randall, an associate director for the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, has also directed for the Royal Court and is a former artistic director of Talawa Theatre, Britain’s longest-established black company.

She argues that producers make assumptions about the kind of shows audiences want to see, and about who should direct. “I should be able to direct anything, and for some reason that is not the case,” she said. “Nobody comes into this business to be limited. I might get asked to do Shakespeare, but it is usually because it is being set in a black context. I want to get better and better at what I do and I don’t mind what kind of thing I direct. Oscar Wilde would be great!”

Nicola Hughes, now rehearsing for the role of Shug Avery in The Color Purple, is already an established West End face, having played Velma Kelly in Chicago and earned an Olivier nomination for Fosse. From a dance background, she now feels she can celebrate the growing opportunities for black performers. “I was at ballet school for six years, and I was the only black girl. There was one black boy, too. After school, in the West End, there was a small pool of us that used to do all the roles that came up,” she said. “There was a feeling that black plays were hard to do because there wasn’t a big enough talent. It wasn’t necessarily true, but there is no longer that feeling.”

She also welcomes an increasing openness to colour-blind casting. “It is great when a director feels it doesn’t matter who he casts, as long as the audience can be made to imagine it. Some directors like to do that, and others don’t. Of course, when the subject of a play is race-related, I completely understand that casting has to follow race lines.”

The arrival of a handful of all-black shows proves that there is a big talent pool, she said. “This is the first black show where I have only known one other member of the company – and that tells you something.” But she would also like to see directors casting black actors in traditionally white roles. So will Jean-Baptiste, best known today for her role as an FBI agent in the American TV series Without a Trace, notice a change in London’s theatre during her run at the National?

In 1996, after becoming the first black British actress to be nominated for an Oscar for her role in Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies, she left a testy complaint ringing in Britain’s ears when she headed for Los Angeles. “The old men running the industry have not got a clue,” she said. “They’ve got to come to terms with the fact that Britain is no longer a totally white place where people ride horses, wear long frocks, drink tea.”

Henry agrees that it is the people running theatre who must change: “The National might ask a black director like Michael Buffong to do a play, but maybe just one. There needs to be a loosening up about all this.”

Black talent could operate across the board, he said. “I remember the playwright Tunde Ikoli once telling me at the Royal Court, ‘You know, I can write plays about white people too’.”

One of the brightest black writing talents is Roy Williams, the author ofSucker Punch, and his new play about the London riots will be staged at the Greenwich Theatre this autumn.

Also leading a new black push into mainstream theatre is Henry’s co-star in Fences, Ashley Zhangazha. Following in the footsteps of Lester, Oyelowo and Chiwetel Ejiofor (respectively London’s first black Hamlet, Shakespearean English king and Romeo), the actor last month won first prize in the annual Ian Charleson awards for his performance as Ross inMacbeth at the Crucible, Sheffield.

So if Henry has one message for British producers it is to catch such a young talent while they can still afford it. Many other actors, including Harewood, Elba and Jean-Baptiste, have had to cross the Atlantic to prove their pulling power. “Then they come back and are stars,” said Henry. “It is ironic, because our theatres could have got them much cheaper before.”

The Guardian