Boy With Beer at the Kings Head Theatre.

Theatre in a Race to the Stage

It didn’t quite make Word of the Year, but the expression “throwing shade” has found its way into the latest edition of the Collins Dictionary. The significance of this development is somewhat shaded (see what I did there?) by the general bemusement that it took Collins so long to ‘discover’ the phrase, and that anyone pays attention to dictionaries anymore, except in their online guises as useful tools for students and other plagiarists.

Far more interesting – and far more significant for the long-term cultural landscape – is another kind of darkening: the theatre scene in London and beyond. Suddenly, or at least, so it seems, black theatrical productions are all over the shop. They’ve somehow managed to escape the cultural ghetto of ‘community theatre’ and sprung up in many and varied places, including the bastion that is London’s West End. What’s more, they are making money; this isn’t a story of art for the public good, subsidised largely unknowingly by local and national taxpayers.

How has this happened, and why now? Who is going to see these productions? Will Brexit and the oft commented upon rise in intolerance and open racism affect this optimistic development? The jury is certainly out on the last two questions but there are good reasons to believe the cultural landscape has shifted for good, for good.

Theatre is playing catch up with a broader societal change that has slowly but inexorably changed the public conversation. Brexit notwithstanding, the zeitgeist has embraced black cultural presence.Music led the way, a long time ago, but other art forms have joined the party. Yinka Shonibare MBE is arguably Britain’s leading conceptual artist. He’s also disabled, and his work is informed by his British-Nigerian background. Let that sink in a moment: until very recently, conceptual art was the preserve of bourgeois enfants-terrible, out to scare the bejesus out of their privileged parents and their friends.

This context is important because it shows that theatre had nothing to be scared of. There has been a string of unapologetically black theatrical successes. As is the way in Britain, the USA led the way. There was a string of profitable musicals, including Five Guys Named Moe and Blues in the Night, as well as successful runs of plays by August Wilson and the like. But the most telling and surprising success is from an improbable source: Walt Disney. The Lion King has packed the West End’s Lyceum Theatre for seventeen years, having debuted in October 1999. In 2014, it earned the unlikely distinction of being the most profitable theatre production in British history.

Inevitably, where American success blossomed, British success eventually followed. There were the inevitable false starts, including the first black British musical to hit the West End, The Big Life, whose life turned out to be as brief as it was big. But after a few successful adaptations of African-American classics, including a highly praised reworking of Amen Corner, black British theatre turned a corner. Blue/Orange is arguably the trailblazer, taking on the still taboo subject of race and mental health with aplomb – but of course, the playwright, Joe Penhall, is white. This was followed by the likes of Elmina’s Kitchen, which debuted to critical acclaim and commercial success as far back as 2003. Kwame Kwei Armah, Kitchen’s playwright, is unapologetically black, British and determined to tell stories set in this context.

Bonnie Greer is that rare thing, an American who has become a naturalised Briton. She’s also black and has an impressive record of plays being staged in Britain, including her current hit production, Cerise. The breadth and depth of black British talent have bled from page, via television and film, to the stage. Such is the richness and history of this revolution – which, like most successful revolutions, was a long time in the making – we’ve arrived at the point where the archive is being raided.

Kings Head Theatre does Boy with Beer

Boy With Beer by Paul Boakye revived at the Kings Head Theatre (November 2016).

Paul Boakye’s Boy with Beer is the latest example of this trend. Written and set in the heady but scary cultural turmoil of the early 1990s, this play, which enjoyed both a critical welcome and commercial success when first staged in 1992, is the subject of a new production, determined to explore the important questions it raises, with humour and unflinching honesty. Boakye said of the revival: “The time feels right; it’s something of a milestone that a play about little talked about aspects of black life is being revisited.” He’s not alone in feeling this way and the signs are that more plays will be revived, for stage and screen alike.

This doesn’t mean everything in the garden is rosy; there are still many stories to be told and away from London, the West Midlands, the Northwest and Leeds, the scene for live black drama and comedy is as ghettoised as ever. But the shows must and will go on; the stage race is gradually being won.

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