Theatre: Missing in action: our black stars

The demise of minority theatre groups has narrowed the choice of roles for many actors to either hooker or pimp in `The Bill', says David Benedict
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SOMETHING rather radical happened last year. We actually saw two productions of Othello. One of Shakespeare's most theatrically effective plays, it has been unofficially off-limits for years. Why? Because there were no black actors strong enough or experienced enough to essay the role. Or so the story went.

Trevor Nunn directed an astonishingly powerful, gripping chamber version of the play with opera singer Willard White in 1987 for the RSC (later filmed in studio) but despite the moans of white male critics who lambasted the supposed political correctness of waiting for a black actor to play the role, there was little activity on the Othello front. Then, like waiting for a bus, two suddenly came along at once.

Ben Thomas's lean, threatening, militaristic performance was the chief reason for seeing Yvonne Brewster's uneven production for the touring black theatre company Talawa, while David Harewood pulled great reviews for Sam Mendes's National theatre version.

Time was, actors and directors saw nothing wrong in "blacking up" to play the moor, as in the case of Laurence Olivier whose eye-rolling performance was captured on film in 1965 (opposite a frankly peculiar Desdemona from Maggie Smith, a woman under the influence of Kenneth Williams).

It must be remembered that this was the time when up to 20 million viewers tuned in to the BBC to watch The Black and White Minstrel Show, an all- singing, all-dancing spectacle derived from the offensively entitled American "Coon Shows". The BBC's ratings grabber only finally disappeared in 1978 but even then 5 million people were still happily watching.

Say "black theatre" to a white theatre-goer from the 1970s and chances are they'd reply Ipi-Tombi, which regardless of any choreographic merit the musical may have had, was basically a tits 'n' feathers show for the tourists. The first all-black, non-musical production in the West End didn't happen until 1987 with James Baldwin's The Amen Corner which had played Broadway 22 years earlier. Why had it taken so long?

Outside of compilation shows like Five Guys Named Moe black theatre may not have made it to the mainstream, but that may be because for many it was never the explicit objective. In the glory days of the fully-funded 1980s there were around 20 black theatre companies including Temba, Umoja, and Theatre of Black Women, all of which are now long gone. Much of their work was never intended to storm the West End, preferring to speak directly to a black audience.

The only two survivors of the 1970s/ 1980s explosion of fringe theatre are Talawa and Black Theatre Co-operative. Felix Cross, director of Black Theatre Co-op, alludes to the now defunct national lesbian and gay company Gay Sweatshop. He counterbalances its demise with the massively increased visibility of gay work in the so-called mainstream. "The company has died. So, did the movement succeed or fail?" he wonders.

"The issue of text-based theatre has not been as central to black culture as music has been." He argues that black theatre initiatives continue, but they have remained or become increasingly ghettoised in a way that black music quite clearly has not.

Black music has had a seismic influence on white music. This isn't opinion, it's fact. Jazz influenced everyone from Stravinsky to musicals to rhythm and blues to soul.

"One island the size of Surrey influenced an entire decade with reggae. Black Theatre hasn't done anything like that. The discussion can't begin to take place on that level. If we haven't made that cultural appropriation, what then is the aesthetic and ideology behind black theatre? Writers like Biyi Bandele-Thomas and August Wilson - neither of whom grew up here - they write with their own identifiable black aesthetic. Most other writers, no matter how good they are, do not."

He believes that it is only when black theatre develops something that white theatre doesn't have that it will have the power and influence to move forward. It's a view not far from that of Garfield Allen who is a key player in the Arts Council's Regional Theatre Strategy whereby the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Nottingham Playhouse and Leicester Haymarket have provided opportunities for black theatre artists to develop entire programmes of work.

Faced with less accessible funding as represented by the absurd reality of the much vaunted Arts For Everyone scheme (more a case of "Art for the lucky few who got through the funding hoops"), Allen is alive to the economic and political arguments which determine everything. "At the time of rioting in the Eighties, money was chucked at black work. Now you have to look for money from the business sector and the most unlikely places."

The image of black theatre is summed up by its actors, but the likeliest place to find them is still The Bill. CVs of young black actors make for highly depressing reading. If you're a woman you'll have played hookers; if you're a man, you'll have played pimps.

Integrated casting remains a dream for most actors. There are exceptions. Leading young people's theatre specialists like Theatre Centre and Red Ladder have actively worked on the principle for so long that it is absolutely taken for granted.

Then there are the stand-outs like Gary Wilmot. Despite being the sole reason to see The Goodbye Girl, his very good reviews never mentioned that he was a black actor in a role created on film by white Richard Dreyfus. But it is still extremely rare to find black actors in major roles unless the part is racially identified.

The debate around this is nothing new, so much so that people like Cross have given up discussing it at conference level. "All these discussions about integrated casting are filled by reasonably liberal-minded people who are already doing it. The day that Adrian Noble turns up to a conference on black theatre will be the day we can really have a debate."