Dame Janet Suzman says “theatre is a white invention and white people go to it.” We say no dear, theatre is a world stage for ALL!

Dame Janet Suzman says “theatre is a white invention…and white people go to it” we say no dear, theatre is a world stage for ALL!

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Earlier this week the actress, Dame Janet Suzman, commented that theatre was ‘a European invention’ starting with Shakespeare. A couple of weeks ago, I went off on one about the casting in Ridley Scott’s Exodus. My main argument then, was that the casting choices dangerously and ignorantly denied histories and blocked people from their own heritage.

Likewise, not only do Suzman’s comments dangerously deny the history of storytelling that extends beyond European and Western culture, they also deny the achievements of contemporary Black and BAME British playwrights, from the professional playwrights that include debbie tucker green and Kwame Kwei-Armah, to the black students and graduates putting on readings in the back of student unions and pubs.

In response to comments from Meera Syal, Suzman had explained that, ‘I’ve just done a South African play. My co-star is a young black man from the slums of Cape Town. Totally brilliant actor. I saw one black face in the room…I rail against that and say why don’t black people come to see a play about one of the most powerful African states?’ Still, Suzman continued to dig, stating that, ‘theatre is a white invention, a European invention, and white people go to it. It’s in their DNA. It starts with Shakespeare.’

Except, theatre hasn’t always looked like red velvet seating, raked stages and heavy red drapes. Neither has it always sounded like the unrhymed iambic pentameter of William Shakespeare. Theatre can look like the performance of rituals between pre-colonial tribes and it can sound like spoken Jamaican patois or even a lively exchange of stories between friends. (In fact, the last time I saw a Shakespeare production, I was sat in a busy Chinatown parking lot in New York City. Cars would continue to drive in and out throughout the performance.)

Today, Black Britons continue to write and perform for diverse audiences. In 2004, Black British playwright debbie tucker green won the most promising newcomer Olivier award for her short play, born bad. Since then green’s plays have been produced by the Royal Court Theatre and seen by audiences as far flung as New York City. And, more recently, green has broken into feature film, directing Idris Elba and Nadine Marshall in Second Coming (2014) as a middle class couple who discover that the wife has immaculately conceived.

Once again, the problem is not that Black Britons are not embracing theatre – Black British playwrights, like green, and actors have been positively critiqued, their plays have been seen by sold-out audiences (whether that audience be in the back of a pub or at the National Theatre) and they have won multiple awards – the problem is that Black British plays, playwrights and audiences – both past and present – are not visible to everyone, but that does not mean that they do not exist.

(And if people are willing to criticize the absence of black audiences, they should also consider the absence of audiences from lower socio-economic groups. In other words – without the odd offer from Time Out or similar – going to the theatre can be bloody expensive).

-Hannah Campbell


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