Bombing at the box-office

RIGHT OF REPLY Death threats forced the cancellation of Slave Babies: 18 black theatre professionals lost their jobs. Floyd Knight responds
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The Independent Culture
In July 1994, I devised the synopsis for a play called Slave Babies and commissioned fellow Jamaican Leslie Chevalier to prepare it for the stage. The play took a light-hearted look at the love / hate relationship between West Indians and Nigerians here in the UK.

In the leaflets which advertised the play I exposed the pejorative black stereotypes that black people are all familiar with. I wanted to relieve the pretence that we are a one-dimensional people who live only in harmony. The intention was to dispel the prejudice and pretence with laughter.

But in March, the National Black Alliance, the Pan African Congress and the Black History Group took upon themselves the job of preventing my play from taking place. Initially their fury was around the leaflet - at that time the play had not opened. The black press bought into their campaign with alarming bias. The protesters tried every legal means to stop both play and leaflet, but the show went on. They became intent on stopping the play, using "any means necessary". This ranged from bomb threats to vehicle damage and death threats to cast members.

Since the late Eighties I have been an producer of popular black theatre. Born and bred in Jamaica I wanted to recreate the island's vibrant theatre scene here in the UK. In the beginning, the black UK audiences were new to theatre, and comedy was a great ice-breaker. I decided to look away from Jamaican-style comedies to issues that affected black audiences in this country. My plays were designed to be neither documentaries nor bastions of political correctness. They are "reality plays" which decode the rules that govern how much we reveal about our inner lives.

The irony about these leaders of the black community is that nobody actually votes them in. They hide behind the politically correct front of 'Afrocentrism" and yet they work on the level of the British National Party. Their language is that of "demand", "insist", "smash" and "destroy". I actually met with a group of the protesters because they insisted that they wanted to reach a compromise. Their "compromise" would have consisted of a public apology to the black community for my leaflet and play (which had not then opened); carte blanche for them to view the rehearsals, edit and rewrite the play; and, failing that, for me to agree not to show the play at all.

If I am the misguided brother they see me as, then instead of the metaphorical public lynching I received at their hands, would it not have been better to have contacted me from the start? One protester who was made uncomfortable by the tactics of his former comrades confided in me that their protest had turned into a massive publicity-seeking exercise for groups on the political fringe.

Unless black people wake up to the hypocrisy of the "thought police" who refuse to credit the man and woman on the street with the ability to think for themselves, they will have succeeded in enslaving us all over again.

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