A friend recently sent me this speech by journalist Diep Tran at the recent American Theatre Critics Association conference, focusing on why theatre criticism in America was so white and whether it was racist, asking questions of Black and Ethnic Minority playwrights that it wouldn’t ask of white playwrights.
It is a question that needs to be asked in the UK, why is theatre so white-from directors, playwrights, producers, box office and audience members. What makes theatre so alienating to people of colour? The obvious answer is the productions. There is no doubt that if you see plays like The Amen Corner (James Baldwin), Red Velvet (Lolita Chakrabarti) and Les Blancs (Lorraine Hansberry) the audience will contain more BME faces than your average Shakespeare. As a BME, who will see nearly anything, I am a bit perplexed, why do people feel they need to represented, why are BME plays still a novelty that see an increase in BME audience members? Is it the same for plays about Jewish characters, for example?
Even Lenny Henry was confused by the dominance of white audience members when he appeared in Comedy of Errors at the National Theatre, speaking at platform for the National’s Shakespeare 400 programme Henry said;
“The interesting thing was that the audience was generally quite monocultural. I was standing there, with this incredibly diverse group of actors on stage, and looking out at the audience it was clear to me that something needed to be done.”
I agree with Henry, going to BME plays by playwrights or modern plays that feature black characters prominently attract a mirror audience but a predominately black Shakespeare production or play with mostly white people BME audiences stay away. It can’t be factors such as cost and location so why is theatre failing to be so multicultural.
I suspect the issue is that black people know they will be the minority and why spend £30 upwards to see more dominance of the white majority (available of TV and film as well as life). I suspect there is a cultural thing as well; there are no major black acting dynasties and, personally, I don’t think Black or Asian culture encourages a creative career whether back or front stage.
Opportunities are few and far between, this week Eclipse Theatre Company announced the winners of a fund to encourage more black and Asian writing. This is great step but sending non-white playwrights to the small theatres of UK, where nobody will see them, doesn’t solve the issue. Where are the well known theatres in such schemes? This solution is merely a plaster on a large wound.