When I recently reviewed the transfer of Kwame Kwei-Armah's Elmina's Kitchen to the Garrick Theatre, I commented on this site that it was "an astonishing and chastening fact" that it's arrival in the West End "marks the first time ever that a contemporary British-born black writer has ever had a play open there." It’s now shortly being joined by the first indigenously created black musical to open on Shaftesbury Avenue, too, when The Big Life transfers from Stratford East's Theatre Royal to the Apollo.
"The wonderful thing about being black in this country, and how backward Britain is, is that as a black person you have an amazing opportunity to be the first at a lot of things", ruefully remarks Clint Dyer, the director of The Big Life who is not only a first-time director himself but also finds himself thrust into the spotlight as "the first black British man ever to direct in the West End".
Kwame Kwei-Armah, best known as a star of television's Casualty as well as his appearances on Celebrity Fame Academy, has had to become the leading man of his own play, too, even though his first instinct was to say no. "But then," he recalls, "I thought about how we find ourselves in this country in a situation where sometimes it's still very hard to programme plays like this. Even though it (Elmina's Kitchen) is Olivier-nominated and Evening Standard award-winning and all of that, there's still a perception that a traditional white audience won't come out to see a play that is quintessentially black.
“Somehow we're all so tribal that they'll just go, 'Oh, that's one for the black audiences, so we can miss that one.' So I decided to do it, hoping that my Casualty profile might do something to help overcome that and allow this play to go out around the country and to be seen by more people." In short, it was time to test whether we were finally ready to "break the glass ceiling of having a black British play in the West End".
While cultural barriers have come crashing down in the West End in the field of Asian theatre of late - with the two-year plus run of Bombay Dreams, the Asian cast Twelfth Night last summer and the (rather more dubious) current entry The Far Pavilions - locally created black theatre hasn't made a comparable leap till now.
Not that the West End, of course, is the centre of British theatre. It is, however, a useful showcase for it and, without appearing in that shop window, how can audiences know whether or not they want to buy it? Instead, black shows have been seen primarily in the 'safe houses' of the National (where Elmina's Kitchen first premiered two years ago, and Kwei-Armah's next play Fix Up also premiered this past December, both in the NT's smallest Cottesloe auditorium), as well as Hampstead and the Royal Court, which have both championed the work of another two young black voices, Debbie Tucker Green and Roy Williams. But the two London theatres with the most consistent track records of producing black work have been Kilburn's Tricycle and Stratford East's Theatre Royal, where Nicolas Kent and Philip Hedley respectively have done the kind of work that actually reflects the local communities their theatres serve.
With the exception of the Tricycle transfers of the South African Kat and the Kings and American Amen Corner and the Stratford East-originated Five Guys Named Moe (set in the US), none of these theatres’ shows have travelled to the West End until now. Why? "For whatever reason, there seems to have been hidden barriers to black people going into the West End to see black work," remarks Hedley. "Though West End producers would rave about what they saw at Stratford East, it would always end up with them saying, 'But will your audiences go to the West End, Philip?' That was always a great doubt for them. Of course, my answer is that, if someone doesn't try, we'll never know!"
The indefatigable Hedley - now the associate producer for the West End transfer of The Big Life, having retired from the position of Stratford East’s artistic director last year (See News, 10 Sep 2004) - is doing more than try: he's working on a strategy to actively bring those audiences into town. "We've learnt a lot at Stratford East. It's much more to do with word-of-mouth - people-to-people word rather than paper-to-people! The community listens to people who they respect, so radio is very important, and I'm working on building a network of person-to-person communication. I'm also raising money to make sure that people in London who can't go to the theatre can do so."
The key to success, of course, is having a story that speaks directly to the targeted audience, and that's most certainly the case with The Big Life. "It's a terribly obvious thing to say, but my predecessor Joan Littlewood had a huge success with white working-class audiences at Stratford East 50 years ago by doing their stories in their voices, with shows like Fings Ain't Wot They Used to Be." In the same way, The Big Life tells the story of black immigrants from the Caribbean in their voices.
But the musical also has a universal appeal. "London is an immigrant city. A man who works in the bar at Stratford East who is from Poland took his mother to see (the show), and they told me it was their story, too," says Hedley.
London is a constantly changing city, and so, happily, is our theatre. Only 25 years ago it was still acceptable for white English actors to 'black up', for instance, to play Othello – Donald Sinden did it for the Royal Shakespeare Company as recently as 1979.
Clint Dyer points out that, in the midst of the strides we are making, there’s still much to be done. "I remember going to the National a few years ago and seeing this huge picture of Laurence Olivier blacked up as Othello. I don't know if it's still there, but they obviously hadn't bothered to think, 'There are a million and one pictures of him on stage'. By showing the one where he's blacked up, they weren't thinking clearly about the type of people they want to enjoy and feel comfortable about coming there."
In the West End, Elmina's Kitchen opened on 26 April 2005 (previews from 20 April) at the Garrick Theatre where it’s booking until 20 August. The Big Life opens on 23 May 2005 (previews from 11 May) at the Apollo Theatre, where it’s booking until 8 November.