The exploration of British society

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The Independent Online

A breath of fresh air is blowing through London's theatreland. Elmina's Kitchen, by Kwame Kwei-Armah, is the first play by a black British writer to grace the stage of the West End for three decades. Despite a brief flowering on the commercial stage in the late 1970s, the work of black playwrights has been largely confined to the world of subsidised theatre. Elmina's Kitchen opened at the Garrick Theatre on Tuesday, having previously enjoyed a successful run at the National Theatre. The fact that the work of a black British playwright is competing for the theatregoing public's attention in the highly competitive West End - after such a long absence - represents a significant moment in the history of British theatre.

A breath of fresh air is blowing through London's theatreland. Elmina's Kitchen, by Kwame Kwei-Armah, is the first play by a black British writer to grace the stage of the West End for three decades. Despite a brief flowering on the commercial stage in the late 1970s, the work of black playwrights has been largely confined to the world of subsidised theatre. Elmina's Kitchen opened at the Garrick Theatre on Tuesday, having previously enjoyed a successful run at the National Theatre. The fact that the work of a black British playwright is competing for the theatregoing public's attention in the highly competitive West End - after such a long absence - represents a significant moment in the history of British theatre.

Elmina's Kitchen is also a vividly contemporary play about life in London. The first thing that strikes the audience is its use of authentic language. According to one Yardie character: "You can't just walk into dis bad man t'ing. You step into that arena and you better be able to dance wid death til it mek you dizzy." The playwright's ear for street language alone is enough to make Elmina's Kitchen stand out.

But the play is also ambitious in the issues it explores. It deals with the dismissive attitudes to education of some young, male black Britons; analyses the difference between what various generations mean by the word "respect"; and asks why criminality is attractive to so many young men in our inner cities. All these important questions are viewed through the prism of a dysfunctional family living off Hackney's so-called "Murder Mile".

The work arrives at an appropriate time. The gap between the affluent and marginalised is as wide as ever, while a culture of gangs and extreme violence is becoming more prevalent in some inner-city areas. Robert Levy, a 16-year-old schoolboy, was stabbed outside his home in Hackney in September last year for an entirely imagined act of "disrespect". His 15-year-old murderer was jailed for life last week. The work of playwrights exploring contemporary subjects will not offer ready-made solutions, but it can play a vital role in confronting difficult issues and helping us to understand our society.

It is to be hoped that Elmina's Kitchen will blaze a trail into commercial theatre that other talented playwrights, keen to deal with the pressing issues of today, will follow - in the same way that John Osborne blazed a trail for working-class playwrights with Look Back In Anger in 1956. An additional advantage would be that London theatres might attract a more diverse audience. The more that different voices are heard on the national stage, the healthier British theatre - and society - will be.

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