Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Black art can be bad, just like art by whites

Real equality means tough judgements and criticism of black and Asian artists and their work
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The Independent Online

Elmina's Kitchen, the play by the superb actor, Kwame Kwei-Armah has transferred to the Garrick after a triumphant run at the National Theatre in 2003. It follows in the footsteps of The Big Life, a musical which grafted ska music and characters from the Windrush generation on to the plot of Love's Labour Lost, which last year transferred to the West End from Stratford East, a dazzling and exuberant show which had the critics climbing over each other to express high praise. There has been a rush of enthusiasm for the sell-out Elmina's Kitchen too.

Arts journalists tell us this is a BIG MOMENT for black theatre, that never before have black plays been good enough to be in West End theatres. Some accolade. It is ignorant too. Actually there was a brilliant production of The Amen Corner by James Baldwin in 1987, which resonated with progressive Britons of all shades. But worst of all, it is condescending rubbish to comfort the nation that all is going splendidly in the cultural heartlands of our multifarious society.

Of course it is good news that the black British presence is finally embraced by our big theatrical venues and that tourists have a more interesting menu on offer than reassuring Lloyd Webber musicals and The Mousetrap. But this is the 21st century, over 400 years after black people appeared on this island (or longer if you include African battalions who were here during the long centuries of Roman occupation).

We should, by now, have moved beyond the old multicultural model with dogmatists who demand entry into white dominated enclosures and then expect nothing but uncritical approbation; if it's black it must be good. The struggle to get the gates to open has been long and hard, but real respect comes out of real equality which means tough judgements and informed criticism of black and Asian artists and their work.

Instead we often get prejudice parading as expertise or patronising tolerance. A. Sivanandan, the black Marxist, wrote in an essay on the black intellectual: "In Western society, art creates its own coterie. It is the province of the specially initiated, carrying with it languages and a lifestyle of its own, even creating its own society. It sets up cohorts of interpreters, counter-interpreters, middlemen, known to the trade as critics ... who tell the mass of people how they should experience art and culture." (in Black British Culture and Society: edited by Kwesi Owusu, 2000).

These critics are powerful enough to elevate creations which many of us feel are second-rate, or work in progress with potential, possibly. They don't get it when it comes to black and Asian artists and writers, because most of these gatekeepers know little about our lives, thoughts, dreams and aspirations. Aroused by encounters with the unfamiliar and the unknown, a visceral excitement overwhelms their critical faculties and they end up giving us inflated valuations, instead of considered, intelligent and scrupulously dispassionate verdicts, which we have a right to expect.

Just three examples. When The Satanic Verses was published most of the reviewers of the book understood neither the Indian slang, which Rushdie uses in his books to brilliant effect, nor anything about the life of the Prophet or the Koran. The appeal of Monica Ali's Brick Lane, for those who absolutely adore the book, is the world she describes: a world they have chosen to walk by for decades, a world which lives and breathes half a mile away from the Bank of England. Though it is heresy to say so, I'm afraid I think the book is overrated as is Elmina's Kitchen, which is based in Hackney and deals with the black subculture: guns, drugs, faithlessness, unparented children; a community in crisis. Fantastic material for fiction, but here executed with bluster and melodrama and a roll of swaggering stereotypes which would reduce the toughest dude to tears of rage. Kwei-Armah redeems the writing with his powerful acting, but the play itself, like Brick Lane, is over-hyped.

It is salutary to note that, when it comes to the arts, high and popular culture, and even counter-culture, the custodians of taste are almost all white. I can count on one hand the individuals of colour who have been permitted into the clique: Sukhdev Sandhu, the film critic, Al Kareem Jivani, Time Out's TV critic, arts commentator Bonnie Greer, the director Jatinder Verma, and Ekow Eshun who recently took over as director of the ICA.

These are pioneers who have busted through the assumptions and limitations which are always placed around us so we don't over-reach ourselves. They write and talk about mainstream products and with knowledge, skill, impertinence and sometimes brilliance. They also have the guts to be laser sharp consumers of "ethnic" art.

Here is what Verma said of Bombay Dreams, (which I thought was an entertaining show): "What, if anything, is the artistic significance of Bombay Dreams? Is its ability to attract Asian audiences to the West End an artistic value?

"Is, conversely, Jerry Springer - The Opera anything more than a 'pakora' musical? Say 'cunt' and 'fuck' enough times and you are guaranteed to draw in youthful audiences in droves, mirroring what goes on in the Asian comedy scene where the mention of a 'pakora' is a sure-fire way to crack up an audience."

There are ways to open up the canon and the cultural identity of our nation, ways which do not sacrifice artistic excellence. The Big Life was outstanding. Under the custodianship of Philip Hedley, Stratford East has been turned into a hothouse of creativity from the edges.

East is East, the play, took the West End by storm. The Globe recently showcased a bold season on Islam and Shakespeare, and the Albery put on a sparkling production of Twelfth Night set in India with an all-Asian cast. Kulwinder Ghir (of Goodness Gracious Me fame) was an unforgettable Feste, full of subtle menace and sexual ambiguity, and a young actress, Shereen Martineau, was the best Viola I have ever seen.

The choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh's most recent work, Flicker- beautiful, modernist dance, shaped to specially written music by Michael Nyman, was again utterly original and much misunderstood by dance critics who want to get this Indian dancer-turned-choreographer into her ethnic box to give Rajasthani twirls.

The National Theatre and the RSC have moved their audiences to now accept black and Asian actors in roles which previously were deemed suitable only for white actors. Why, they even loved a black (and brilliant) Henry VI, played by David Oyelowo. The pity is that the coterie of British critics who are paid to reflect societal transformations, to promote the excellent and extraordinary, are huddled in their closed shop, wielding influence in a world they do not comprehend.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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