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Theatre of Black Women

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Black British Women's Theatre

Abstract

This chapter tells the story of Britain’s first black women’s theatre company, Theatre of Black Women (TBW). It follows founding members Bernardine Evaristo and Patricia Hilaire from their teenage participation in drama groups through their studies at Rose Bruford College to touring their work internationally, funded by Greater London Council, Greater London Arts Association, Gulbenkian Foundation, and Arts Council England. It positions TBW within a wider history of alternative British theatre, alongside the Royal Court, Black Theatre Co-operative, and Gay Sweatshop.

Using playscripts, production photographs, and other materials from the playwrights’ personal collections, this chapter traces the evolution of Evaristo’s first monologues, Come to Mama, Moving Through, and Tiger Teeth Clenched Not to Bite (1982), before analysing TBW’s early plays Silhouette (1983) and Pyeyucca (1984).

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Croft (1993), Ponnuswami (2000), and Starck (2006) have all published short histories of Theatre of Black Women. Bernardine Evaristo has written a first-hand account of the company’s activities for The Palgrave Handbook of the History of Women on Stage (2020) edited by Jan Sewell and Clare Smout.

  2. 2.

    The interview was originally intended to feature in the collection Charting the Journey. However, the collection was eventually published in 1988 with the interview omitted. Evaristo’s poetry is included, though: see Grewal et al., eds (1988), pp. 111–112.

  3. 3.

    Ntozake Shange’s work has had a significant influence on black British theatre. Her play Spell No . 7 was mounted by the Women’s Playhouse Trust at Donmar Warehouse in April 1985, and for colored girls was revived by Siren Theatre Company at Battersea Arts Centre in 1990. The Love Space Demands was Talawa’s first production by a female writer, as well as its first written by an American: it was staged at the Cochrane Theatre, London in October 1992, with a cast that included performance poet Jean Binta Breeze. Bernardine Evaristo has spoken of the influence of for colored girls in the programme ‘The Essay’ for BBC Radio 3, broadcast on 16 March 2011.

  4. 4.

    The Minority Arts Advisory Service was officially incorporated in January 1977 after the publication of Naseem Khan’s The Arts Britain Ignores (1976), a groundbreaking report on the creative practices of ethnic minority communities. MAAS was founded by Khan, and its original managing committee further comprised Taiwo Ajai, actor Norman Beaton, activist and poet Peter Blackman, Ravinder Jain, and Shantu Maher. Patricia Hilaire sat on the MAAS Board of Directors from 1985 to 1987.

  5. 5.

    According to uncatalogued documents in Patricia Hilaire’s papers, Bernardine Evaristo played a character called Mobolaji Sackwood, Paulette Randall played Norma Baker, Barbara Robinson played Una Bastable, and Joan Williams played Ivy Kelly.

  6. 6.

    Memorial events continue: ‘Remembering the New Cross Fire: 30 Years On’, an evening of spoken word, film, discussion, and music, was held at the Albany theatre on 14 January 2011, involving playwright and director Kwame Kwei-Armah, writer Courttia Newland, and filmmaker Menelik Shabazz.

  7. 7.

    Other uprisings that year included Chapeltown (Leeds), Toxteth (Liverpool), Handsworth (Birmingham), and Moss Side (Manchester).

  8. 8.

    All information on the ‘Talking Black’ showcase and the subsequent Young Writers Festival is taken from the Production management file for the Young Writers’ Festival and Primary Sauce, English Stage Company/Royal Court Theatre archive, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. THM/273/4/2/151.

  9. 9.

    Patricia Hilaire’s coverage of the subject of teenage pregnancy in Just Another Day anticipated a number of later plays by black British women, including Grace Dayley’s Rose’s Story (1985), Zindika’s Paper and Stone (1989), Trish Cooke’s Back Street Mammy (1990), and J.B. Rose’s Darker the Berry (1998).

  10. 10.

    Randall’s Chameleon (1982) is not to be confused with the play of the same name authored by Michael Ellis, a production of which Paulette Randall directed for Temba Theatre Company at Oval House in 1985.

  11. 11.

    As well as exhibiting her own art, Maud Sulter was a key champion of other black women’s creativity: in 1985 she programmed Check It, a series of events at the Drill Hall (Dimitrakaki and Perry, eds 2013, p. 209), and she would later publish poems by both Evaristo and Hilaire in her edited collection Passion: Discourses on Blackwomen’s Creativity (1990).

  12. 12.

    Archival materials relating to Evaristo’s Lara are held as part of the Bloodaxe Books archive, acquired by Newcastle University Special Collections in 2013 (Philip Robinson Library, Jesmond Road West, Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE2 4HQ).

  13. 13.

    Zhana continues to write as part of her work promoting personal and spiritual development, most recently self-publishing Black Success Stories (2006).

  14. 14.

    The Association of London Black Artists was founded by Karin Woodley, Chief Executive of MAAS from 1983 to 1989, Chair of Trustees for the Black-Art Gallery, and founder and Chair of Arts Media Group, which facilitated the publication of bi-monthly listings magazine Black Arts in London.

  15. 15.

    TBW were introduced to Tyson by Dorothea Smartt: the two had attended secondary school together.

  16. 16.

    Gay Sweatshop theatre company was founded by Drew Griffiths and Gerald Chapman in 1975.

  17. 17.

    Soon after, Ade Solanke set up Tama Communications, an enterprise promoting black arts and other organisations. She has since founded award-winning theatre and film company Spora Stories, and written three stage plays: Pandora’s Box (given a rehearsed reading at the Almeida Theatre in 2008, and a full production at the Arcola Theatre in 2012, followed by a sixteen-venue UK tour); East End Boys, West End Girls (Arcola, 2015), which she also directed; and The Court Must Have a Queen (Hampton Court Palace, 2018), which was commissioned and produced by Historic Royal Palaces. Solanke has also had radio plays produced by the BBC, and wrote the screenplay for the feature film Dazzling Mirage (2014).

  18. 18.

    Helen Oyeyemi’s novel Boy, Snow, Bird literalises this racialised trope of not recognising oneself in the mirror, as white-passing character Bird reports not appearing in mirrors (Oyeyemi 2014, p. 190).

  19. 19.

    Some publications have given 19 March 1986 as the opening date for Chiaroscuro at Soho Poly, including Davis (1987), p. 58; Goodman (1993), p. 254; Goddard, ed. (2011), p. 61; and the Oberon edition of the playscript, Kay (2019 [1986]), n.p. The archive speaks otherwise: the date 19 February 1986 is given on a contemporaneous publicity poster collected in the ‘Speak Out London’ community archive (Theatre of Black Women 1986b) and prefaces the reviews collated in London Theatre Record (Anon 1986b, p. 381). The Time Out review reprinted there is dated to 6 March, confirming the earlier opening (Rose 1986).

  20. 20.

    Aleks Sierz has commented that Linton ‘abbreviated the original two-act play into a 90-minute gig […] with most of the 1980s references cut’ (Sierz 2019). In fact, the separation of the play into two acts is retained in the 2019 script, albeit unannounced onstage. Cultural references from the 1980s—such as to the 1985 film Desert Hearts (Kay 2019 [1986], p. 12)—are retained, but material that participates directly in contemporary political debates is slimmed. These changes to the 2019 script include the removal of Beth’s statement ‘My mother’s English’ (Kay 2011, p. 78), later understood to mean she is white; excision of Yomi’s protestations about being told not to use the term ‘half-caste’ (Kay (2011), p. 89); several amendments to an exchange about political blackness, including removal of Aisha’s comment about her self-identification as such being policed by those of African Caribbean descent (Kay 2011, p. 91); and removal of a comment by Yomi implying that she would not want her daughter interacting with a lesbian (Kay 2011, pp. 105–106).

  21. 21.

    The BiBi Crew was formed in 1991 by Joanne Campbell, Judith Jacob, Janet Kay, Suzette Llewellyn, Josephine Melville, Beverley Michaels, and Suzanne Packer. The all-women group devised and produced work with an African Caribbean perspective.

  22. 22.

    It has been incorrectly reported that TBW closed because their Arts Council funding was not renewed and their remaining Greater London Arts Association and London Borough Grant Scheme monies were insufficient (Goodman 1993, p. 153). Rather, archival records show that it was the GLAA funding that was first withdrawn.

  23. 23.

    Peggy Bennette Hume, one of the potential collaborators named on TBW’s 1988 ACGB funding application, had a play mounted at the Tricycle in 1985: The Girl Who Wished. The script was later published by New Millennium (Bennette Hume, 1997).

  24. 24.

    For a contemporaneous discussion of arts funding in Britain, see Owusu (1986). For an assessment of ACGB funding strategies since 1986, focused on regional touring companies, see Brown et al. (2000).

  25. 25.

    This genesis of Doña Daley’s play was reported by Winsome Pinnock at the ‘Black Women Playwrights’ workshop convened by the National Theatre, London, on 27 October 2012.

  26. 26.

    See Evaristo’s artist website: https://bevaristo.com/.

  27. 27.

    The Spirit of Okin, dir. Olusola Oyeleye. Oyeleye coordinated the Youth Opera Festival at the English National Opera (ENO) in 1987 before becoming a staff producer for the ENO; see Oyeleye (1990).

  28. 28.

    Other authors have made the connection between feminism and food ethics. See, for example, Adams (1990) and Avakian and Haber, eds (2005).

  29. 29.

    Munda Negra (1994), like Pyeyucca (1984), deals with the topic of being black outside the metropolis. Greer’s female protagonist Anna attempts to adopt the mixed-race daughter, Nicole, of her dead ex-lover, Neville, before Nicole’s white mother moves the girl to Shropshire from London. Munda Negra was published in Yvonne Brewster’s Black Plays: 3 (1995).

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Abram, N. (2020). Theatre of Black Women. In: Black British Women's Theatre. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-51459-4_2

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