Play 'intimidates white audiences'

Drama urging violent black protest stirs inner-city tensions. David Lister reports
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The Independent Online
A highly emotive play which urges blacks to use violence against whites, especially the police, is stirring racial tensions in one of London's most racially mixed areas.

White theatre-goers have felt intimidated on leaving the theatre. Others walked out during the opening performances this week as blacks in the audience stood and shouted at them.

The play, Zumbi, by the black British writer Shango Baku, has been put on by Black Theatre Co-Operative at the Theatre Royal, Stratford, east London, as part of the London International Festival of Theatre. The company, the festival and the theatre are all publicly funded by the Arts Council of England.

The play draws constant parallels between slavery in Brazil centuries ago and the plight of blacks in Britain today. The only policeman portrayed - as an offstage voice - is a racist. When challenged about black rights to freedom, he replies: "I'm free too, boy. I'm free to beat the shit out of you."

At one point, the actors address the audience. One says: "Black people from all over fought in a war ... After the war, black people couldn't get jobs here. While the so called enemies - the Germans and the Italians - started opening up businesses here, the black man was left on the shit heap, literally." Another says: "Let me make a comparison with the Jews. Six million killed in concentration camps. One hundred and thirty million of my people slaughtered in the slave trade .... You want me to look for milk and honey in the sky. But I know it is here and now. You took it from me - by robbery, rape, pillage and genocide. And I want it all back. And if you don't give it to me I am going to take it, just as you took it from me."

The play ends with a choreographed scene to a loud drumbeat with the cast arms upraised against a photograph of a black man aiming a gun.

One festival official said: "It made the white middle classes cower in their seats. The blacks in the audience were jumping up and screaming. It was overt black racism."

Stratford is an explosive venue for the play. It is in the London borough of Newham, which has a large black working-class population. However, the theatre is also popular with white middle-class theatre-goers.

Chris Taylor, production spokeswoman, said: "I accept a number of people have walked out and a number have felt threatened. Some think it is overt racism, but I don't accept that. The play is self-critical as well." In a statement, Black Theatre Co-Operative said Zumbi was "angry, self-critical and truthful ... The stories it portrays are based on real-life experiences from the black community. It is an affirmation of all aspects of black culture".

Patrick Wilson, a West End producer, said: "If I had put on something like this from a white perspective it would have been pilloried from all quarters. I certainly felt intimidated ..."

But Albie James, a BBC Radio drama producer, praised the play, adding: "If people are getting angry, you can't ignore it. A lot of young black people in this country are angry."