Different voices

Black British drama is moving into the West End. It's financially risky, but challenging, says Claire Allfree
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The Independent Culture

Should you venture into the West End at night this week, you'll find not one but two pieces of black British theatre.

Should you venture into the West End at night this week, you'll find not one but two pieces of black British theatre.

Elmina's Kitchen by Kwame Kwei-Armah, originally commissioned by the National and now starring the playwright himself, is the first new black British play to open in the commercial sector. And The Big Life, a riotous ska musical developed at Theatre Royal, Stratford East, is the first black British musical to open in this famous postcode.

The presence of these two shows suggests something significant: that black British theatre is testing its commercial strength. And what distinguishes - and unites - The Big Life and Elmina's Kitchen is that they reflect key parts of the black British experience.

The Big Life, devised by Clint Dyer and the outgoing Stratford East artistic director Philip Hedley, marries the story of the Windrush generation with the more absurd plots of Love's Labours Lost. Elmina's Kitchen, set in a West Indian restaurant on Hackney's infamous "murder mile", is a hilarious but deadly serious examination of gun culture.

Dyer is wary of being co-opted into some loose "black theatre" genre. "The Big Life and Elmina's Kitchen are entirely different works from entirely different places: they just happen to have been picked up at the same time."

Kwei-Armah says there are now three generations of Afro-Caribbeans in Britain, a cultural shift that the establishment can no longer afford not to invest in. And Dyer believes these new audiences and theatre practitioners have experiences that are meaningful to everyone, not just to specific cultural groups. The Big Life illustrates the racism experienced by the first wave of Afro-Caribbean immigrants. "It's vital to the knowledge and enhancement of London that The Big Life is on in the West End for people to see," Dyer says.

Kwei-Armah and Angus Jackson, the director of Elmina's Kitchen, pay tribute to the reign of Nick Hytner at the National, during which it has looked beyond conventional sources. Kwei-Armah says: "White audiences can now see themselves through someone else's cultural lens." Jackson wonders whether white middle-class lives have run out of dramatic content. "There's a hunger for new work that reflects this, and there's a raft of new talent able to express it."

The audience mix the night after Elmina's Kitchen's press night suggested that the 15 per cent black turnout it enjoyed at the National is continuing in the West End. Dyer is confident that his local audience will come: "I know, because they've told me."

Yet obstacles remain. Directors and artistic directors are still overwhelmingly white, Dyer says. Furthermore, the Victorian playhouses of the commercial sector often don't complement the work of new black British writers such as Roy Williams. His play Fallout was ecstatically received at the Royal Court in 2003, but never made it to the West End. A spokeswoman for the theatre says it couldn't find a commercial producer willing to take the risk. Also, the production's technical demands would have been difficult to accommodate in the West End's traditional theatres.

Still, black British theatre is breaking the biggest barrier - the perception that it is an exclusive, marginal genre. "It's great that the black community is claiming the West End for itself," Kwei-Armah says. "But I get just as excited when I see a white lady from Peterborough in the audience as a black teenager from Hackney."

'Elmina's Kitchen', Garrick Theatre, London WC2 (0870 890 1104), booking to 20 August: 'The Big Life', Apollo Shaftesbury, London W1 (020-7494 5070), booking to 5 November

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