Talawa artistic director Michael Buffong tells Tim Bano about how the black-led touring theatre company has inspired his career from the start, why it is now choosing to tell the stories of black workers on the NHS front line and why theatre can’t go back to what it was before the pandemic or the Black Lives Matter protests
Talawa Theatre Company’s first production, 34 years ago, was CLR James’ play The Black Jacobins. With an all-black cast of 23 and an £80,000 budget, it dramatised the events of the Haitian Revolution and brought into being a company that has played a vital role in the British theatre ecology for more than three decades.
In the audience was 21-year-old actor Michael Buffong, excited to see TV and film stars such as Norman Beaton, Trevor Laird and Brian Bovell on stage. Over the years, Buffong watched Talawa’s productions; he worked with the company, directed plays and in 2012 he became its artistic director. Under Buffong, Talawa has become a crowning presence in British theatre, renowned just as much for its revivals of classic plays as for nurturing brilliant new work and talent.
Growing up in east London, it was at Theatre Royal Stratford East that Buffong fell in love with theatre and began his professional practice. Aged 17, he went there to watch a play by a local theatre group, Newham Youth Theatre, called A Time for Celebration.
‘We’ve still a way to go, but if we get through this, I feel very positive about what we have to offer’
“What was so amazing about it was that there were people on the stage who looked like me. It was a mixed company: young, black, white, Asian, Greek. It was a great ensemble of young people talking about how pissed off they were at their parents who didn’t understand them, how difficult it was to get work at the time, who they fancied, would they go out with them? It had music and dance. It was really funny and really poignant at times. I just thought: I want to be up there with that group of people doing that. I want to be in that gang. So I joined East London Youth Theatre and that’s how I started.”
Buffong knew he wanted to pursue a professional acting career. “The problem was, how do you get an Equity card? You need a job. How do you get a job? You need an Equity card. You had to find a way around it. But there was a theatre in education company called Soapbox that had two Equity cards a year to give out. A couple of my friends got them in one year, and then I got mine the following year, so that’s how I started. Then of course you had to get an agent and that took a bit of time, so I did quite a bit of work in repertory companies learning my trade.”
Born: 1964, London
Training: Theatre Royal Stratford East’s directors’ course; assistant director at TRSE and Talawa
• Six Degrees of Separation, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester (2004)
• A Raisin in the Sun, Royal Exchange (2010)
• Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, National Theatre, London (2012)
• All My Sons, Royal Exchange (2013)
• King Lear, Royal Exchange and Birmingham Rep (2016)
• Guys and Dolls, Royal Exchange (2017)
• Four Manchester Evening News Theatre Awards for A Raisin in the Sun (2010)
Agent: Cathy King at 42M&P
By the early 1990s, Buffong had been acting for a few years and was becoming frustrated with the available roles. “Quite a few actors – young black actors – were continually going up for Drug Dealer Number One, or Mugger, or whatever it was. Bit parts on The Bill and those kinds of crime shows. Never anything that made me think: ‘Yeah, I can really show my craft.’ Nothing that had breadth or depth or sophistication to it.”
At about the same time, young actor Calvin Simpson was killed in a road accident (his headstone, consisting of a comedy and tragedy mask intertwined, is a notable site at Nunhead Cemetery). His memorial was held at Theatre Royal Stratford East and a group of friends – Buffong included – performed a sketch in his memory. The sketch was well received and the eight performers – Buffong, Bovell, Victor Romero Evans, Robbie Gee, Roger Griffiths, Gary McDonald, Eddie Nestor and Sylvester Williams – were encouraged to form a group.
“So we formed our own company, called The Posse. We said we wanted to take the reins of creativity into our own hands and to determine our own artistic future. We decided we would use comedy to get across our messages of inequality and the situations we found ourselves in as actors. We talked about all kinds of things, whether it was gender or unemployment, and we made sketches out of it.”
Their first show, Armed and Dangerous, opened at Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1992 and success followed quickly: there were several tours, live shows, a TV show and a film commission. By that time, Buffong’s instincts as a director had started to kick in. He would find himself in rehearsal rooms questioning why the director was blocking like this, or choosing a particular coloured light. “I found it quite a frustrating experience, never understanding why they weren’t doing things in a certain way.” He would watch TV programmes and wonder why the director hadn’t chosen a close-up for a particular moment. “I thought: ‘When I’m doing TV we’re going to have a close-up’,” he laughs.
Philip Hedley, then artistic director of Stratford East, was running a director’s course at the theatre. They had known each other since Buffong started at the youth theatre. “I thought it might be the thing I was looking for. I went along, and sure enough it was the bit of the puzzle that fit. It’s my passion.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
Working in the [government] Valuation Office Agency.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Assistant stage manager at Soapbox Children’s Theatre.
What is your next job?
Tales from the Front Line.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Save 10% of your income for yourself.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Seeing a youth theatre show at Theatre Royal Stratford East aged 17. On stage were young people who looked and sounded like me. Other influences have been reading The Amen Corner by James Baldwin and The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Do your research and be passionate about the part.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been?
Possibly a writer.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I never go backstage after the half.
For the next 13 years, Buffong slid between directing theatre, film and TV. He would direct shows at venues such as London’s National Theatre and Manchester’s Royal Exchange, then have stints on Holby City, EastEnders, Casualty. “I was very fortunate: I managed to get into a position where I could do a theatre show, then do some TV, then do another theatre show. So for quite a few years I managed between the two.”
But his first gig was for a company he was already familiar with, and one that would come to define his artistic career: Talawa, one of the first black theatre companies in the country. The company was set up by Yvonne Brewster, Mona Hammond, Inigo Espegel and Carmen Munroe to give black actors roles that had always, by default, gone to white actors. Early plays included The Importance of Being Earnest, Antony and Cleopatra and ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore. But alongside that, Talawa staged plays by prominent black writers and thinkers including Earl Lovelace, Ntozake Shange, Sylvia Wynter and Biyi Bandele.
Across 34 years, Buffong and Talawa’s journeys have intersected, starting the night Buffong watched The Black Jacobins at Riverside Studios in 1986. Brewster wrote of that first production: “I received a phone call suggesting I submit, virtually immediately, a fully costed proposal for a theatrical production. I was told there might be funding available for the staging of something ‘impressive’ from the black community. Having been convinced this proposal was not a hoax, there was no difficulty identifying The Black Jacobins as the ultimate choice.
‘I feel optimistic about our plans. But it’s also about our co-producers and what’s happening in those places. We are very aware of what happens to our artists around us.’
“My preliminary blue-sky budget for this production – which would require a minimum of 23 actors, a first-rate set design, lighting, sound and costume designers, excellent stage managers, innumerable 18th-century military costumes, a full six weeks’ rehearsal and the rental of a splendid venue – topped the £80,000 mark. Even today, this is an enormous sum for an independent black production in England: an impossible dream. The money was, surprisingly, granted in full with no quibbles.”
The play was a powerful choice by Brewster, depicting the story of the Haitian Revolution, and the slaves who not only ended slavery on the island, and overthrew French colonial rule to become the first black republic outside Africa, but also spread abolition throughout the Western hemisphere.
In his early days as an actor, Buffong had crashed an audition that Brewster had set up – “I didn’t get the job, my friend got it” – but the event was enough for Brewster to remember him years later when she was looking for a director. She hired him, giving him one of his first gigs in 1999.
In 2011, Pat Cumper decided to step down as Talawa’s artistic director. Buffong had been a freelance director for more than a decade. “I was thinking, maybe there’s something for me that might be more meaningful, theatre-wise. It came along at a time that seemed right. I was ready for it.” Just after he got the job, Buffong said in an interview that he wanted Talawa to be “the go-to company for black British work, where well-established practitioners work alongside new and upcoming practitioners starting their careers”.
He’s done that– and then some. Buffong brought his existing relationships with buildings such as the National Theatre and some of the country’s leading actors. Under his tenure, Talawa has carefully balanced the established with the new, the great and good with grassroots. In 2017, he directed a revelatory production of Guys and Dolls at Manchester Royal Exchange, which moved the crap-shooting, cold-developing, Cuba-tripping action up 90 blocks on Broadway to Harlem’s 135th Street. Frank Loesser’s score was given a few jazz tweaks, but very little otherwise was changed from the original. And yet it felt like a musical that had finally been allowed to breathe.
Although Buffong has long been a fan of musicals – “you will catch me singing along to some kind of musical in the kitchen on a Sunday morning making breakfast for the kids” – this was the first he had directed. Why did it take so long?
“Opportunity. When I first rocked up at the Royal Exchange, one of the first questions was: ‘Give us a list of the top 10 plays you would like to do.’ A Raisin in the Sun was on there, and Moon on a Rainbow Shawl. They were like: ‘Great, it’s good to know that.’ I also said I’d really like to do Guys and Dolls, and they said: ‘Yeah it’s probably not going to happen.’ But after doing a few successful shows with them they said again: ‘What do you want to do.’ I said I want to do Guys and Dolls. They had been trying to get the rights for it for years but hadn’t managed. But they gave it another go, and it happened.”
In 2016, Buffong directed King Lear starring Don Warrington in the title role, and he chose to keep the production in its original ancient setting, reasserting that there could have been black people in Britain at that time. The point, Buffong explained, was to put a spotlight on the ignorance towards black British history, not absence. The lack of documentation and omission from the curriculum does not mean people weren’t there. Black people populated England’s ancient past, some of them might have been kings, but those histories have never been documented, uncovered, or celebrated as much as white histories.
That idea – absence of evidence is not evidence of absence – is a recurring strand in Buffong’s work. It’s not enough to note that documents and records do not exist, or that they have been buried or removed from view. It’s important, also, to ask why. That’s one of the driving forces behind Talawa’s latest piece, Tales from the Front Line, six short verbatim pieces based on testimonies from black front-line workers during the pandemic.
... what attracts him to a play
“It’s whatever the emotional pull is. What are the human conflicts? What are the tensions? That’s what I want to examine. I want to see on stage the kind of stuff you don’t see about other people in your everyday life, because most of the time we present our best selves. That’s what I pick up on: pain, hurt, love, jealousy, anger, betrayal – whatever those human emotions are. I want to put that on my stage and put it in a room of people who can go: ‘Yeah, I know that feeling.’ So it tends to be a real emotional pull to a piece, first and foremost, and then it’s a visual thing about painting pictures on stage. That’s the next part for me.”
... the pandemic
“It’s meant I’m around the house a lot more, it means I have lunch with my children and my partner. There are all the negatives: it’s horrific, it’s disproportionately affecting black, Asian and minority ethnic people, there have been mixed messages from the government, I’ve been worrying about whether anyone has a handle on it. But apart from all of that, what it’s forced us all to do – certainly at the beginning – is slow down. There was something about slowing down that was beneficial. Like everyone else I’d been living my life: get up in the morning, get the kids to school, get the train, get to work, do what I needed to do, get lunch if you’re lucky, back to your desk, back on the train, rush home, get the kids to bed, get to bed, wake up and do it all again in the morning. Going into lockdown has meant I’ve had a bit more time. I’ve had time to sit and eat my breakfast with my family as opposed to wolfing it down. That’s been amazing. But I am grateful, because I have a house and it has a garden so my experience of the pandemic is not everyone’s experience. I’m aware of that.”
Black people are four times more likely to die from coronavirus. The piece aims to “document the contribution of black workers at the front line of the Covid-19 crisis, creating a lasting historical record. It will explore their relationships with British society and how the pandemic has challenged their perceptions of belonging, especially in the wake of the Windrush scandal and the global Black Lives Matter movement.”
Buffong says: “I started thinking about the fact that if we weren’t in this lockdown scenario, we would probably be talking about Brexit and Windrush quite a lot. The very people they had been trying to get out of the country – people who look like me – were front-line workers. The other thing was that we didn’t see any type of black representation in terms of front-line workers on the news. That’s when I thought we should record what’s happening, who is on the front line, get their testimonies, their thoughts and feelings, and record it so their contribution to the story isn’t erased. I thought that was important.
“I started thinking about artists and what they can bring to it. If you’re a sound designer listening to it, what would it make you feel? What might it inspire you to create? What if you’re a movement artist, choreographer, dancer? Can you put the two things together and can that live online? So its form came out of the fact we’re in lockdown, on Zoom. But there are stories to be told.”
The form is still developing, says Buffong excitedly, but he imagines it as “testimony against soundscape, against movement, against images”.
The project marks a crossing point between the unfathomable upheaval of the pandemic and the extraordinary swell of the Black Lives Matter movement, global anti-racism protests, and national conversations about race and racism. Tales from the Front Line poses two questions: what has been learned, challenged and changed forever? And what might life in the UK look like in a year’s time for black-British communities?
‘You will catch me singing along to some kind of musical in the kitchen on a Sunday morning making breakfast for the kids’
Buffong expects a shift in the discourse around race. “That’s the big thing. It’s not on the periphery now, everyone is involved in this discussion. What that will look like in a year’s time is interesting. This has to be a moment of absolute change, of reset, and I’m hoping that things will look different. There’s definitely a sense of movement in the right direction. But it’s like the response to Covid-19: hopefully we have all learned things about what it means to be human because of this pandemic – about being kinder to each other, in all respects, in terms of all injustices. It’s that kind of shift I’d like to see. How the arts play a part in that movement, too, is what I’d like to witness and to be a part of.”
Does that change what Talawa’s role is in the theatre landscape? “It probably makes it more important. Now people are looking at us and going: ‘My goodness, this is what you’ve been doing all the time. Keep on doing it.’ It moves Talawa’s raison d’etre even more front and centre so we have a truly diverse cultural offering in this country. This is the time to double down.”
Recent weeks have offered stark reminders of how white so many of the country’s biggest institutions are. Buffong has worked in many of those buildings. “With all these organisations,” he says, “they have good intent. But we come up against the reality of those good intentions. In those institutions, one of the key things is that if they really do want to effect long-lasting change it has to be from the top. I’ve been in some of those organisations and gone: ‘Wow, apart from me there are no other black people in this company.’”
So, beyond the work on stage, Talawa is also running unconscious bias training in institutions – including drama schools such as LAMDA and RADA – “to help them understand their attitudes, and to change them”.
And Talawa has big plans for the future. It has productions in the pipeline, and there’s no sign it will be a casualty of the pandemic. But, Buffong points out, the company works within an ecosystem that, in all parts, is mutually reliant.
“I feel optimistic about our plans. But it’s also about our co-producers and what’s happening in those places. We are very aware of what happens to our artists around us. We’ve still a way to go, but if we get through this, I feel very positive about what we have to offer. In terms of work, in terms of artists, in terms of community engagement, yeah, I’m feeling very positive.”
For more information go to: talawa.com/articles/tales-from-the-front-line