Meet the black theatremakers amplifying global voices
Global Voices Theatre aims to bring international stories to our stages. Last year marked its latest staged readings, led by Bridget Minamore. Nick Awde finds out about the growing call for diverse stories
Global Voices Theatre’s latest instalment of staged readings by international writers, Global Black Voices at London’s Roundhouse, proved to be an insightful and often provocative showcase of how ‘otherness’ is viewed by contemporary theatre overseas.
Curated by poet and journalist Bridget Minamore – who contributes to The Stage – the August event lined up six excerpts from plays, never staged in the UK before, by black writers from Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Haiti and the US.
The brief for Minamore and her team of readers was simply to select the very best plays from the initial call-out. However threads did appear: many of the plays looked at queer/LGBT+ black stories and at women’s stories and feminist issues, while the final selections all dealt with themes of time.
The next call-out was for black directors and actors, particularly emerging ones. “Some of our directors were young and relatively early on in their careers, such as Abigail Sewell and Kaleya Baxe and I knew it would be exciting to have them share space with someone like Femi Elufowoju Jr, who has been working in the industry for decades,” Minamore says.
The excerpts were performed in the Sackler Space, which extended Minamore’s connections with the Roundhouse – currently she is co-lead tutor for the Poetry Collective, working with young emerging poets, and she has just run a Critics of Colour summer course for young emerging critics along with Georgia Dodsworth and Sabrina Mahfouz of the Critics of Colour Collective.
Pleasingly the cast was drawn from all ages – in fact the casting call had actively encouraged actors over 35 to apply. The 17 performers put on a range of complex ensemble pieces and intense two-handers with a gallery of world accents and cultural quirks.
Global Voices Theatre: A Chronology
• Global Female Voices – Arcola Theatre, July 2018
• Global Female Voices – Arcola Theatre, February 2019
• Global Arab Female Voices – AWAN Festival, Rich Mix, March 2019
• Global Queer Voices – Arcola Theatre, April 2019
• Global Indigenous Voices – Origins Festival, British Library, June 2019
• Global Black Voices – Roundhouse, August 2019
• Global Latin American Voices – Roundhouse, November 2019
Details at roundhouse.org.uk
The opener was I Love Him But…, written by Ghana’s Maxwell Odoi-Yeboah and directed by Sean Graham, which evoked Arnold Wesker in the way it juggled the bittersweet urban stories of couples from different generations. As a wedding looms, they test the bonds of marriage and question its demands to balance happiness and trust with keeping up appearances.
Stepping back to the 18th century was Deux Femmes on the Edge de la Revolution (Two Women on the Edge of Revolution) by US-Haiti’s France-Luce Benson and directed by Kaleya Baxe. The backdrop is Toussaint L’Ouverture’s slave rebellion in Haiti, which drove out the island’s white colonist elites. As the political tension builds, an entitled white woman and her subversive black maid work through their personal tensions to reach a kind of truce.
Also featuring two women, The Preacher’s Wife, by Nigeria’s Shayera Dark, directed by Abigail Sewell, examined the generational tensions within a secret lesbian relationship when the wife of the pastor of a Nigerian megachurch and her no-nonsense younger lover react as anti-gay laws are passed in the country. The cautious wisdom of the former gently parries with the latter’s growing outspokenness, both wary of destabilising the bond between them.
Church and gay love reappeared in No Easter Sunday for Queers, by South Africa’s Koleka Putuma and directed by Femi Elufowoju Jr. Jagged, unexpected humour laces this five-hander, described as “a nonlinear play shining a light on South African hate crimes in intimate relationships and broader society”, exposing society’s complicity through the stories of two queer lovers murdered at a church.
Offering another incisive slice of Nigeria while simultaneously channelling David Mamet was 54 Silhouettes by Africa Ukoh and directed by Anastasia Osei-Kuffour. Thanks to his endearingly dodgy agent, a struggling Nigerian actor gets his big break in a Hollywood blockbuster, only to find out from a white American production assistant that his part is a clichéd role in yet another ‘conflict in Africa’ film. Will he sell out or will he walk?
Unsettling in its very normality was dystopian psycho-drama How Blood Go, by US playwright Lisa Langford and directed by Stella Odunlami. A split narrative reveals two brothers discussing their experiences as the subjects of medical syphilis experiments conducted unethically in 1930s America as, with growing irony, they watch over their descendant, a woman who has just learned that her healthy body is the result of another medical experiment that makes her appear white to doctors.
It’s a tribute to the high bar set by GBV that the excerpts begged the chance to see each play in full, an observation echoed by Minamore. “I’d like to think they’d be successful, but a lot would depend on how they were marketed, where they’d get put on and so on.
“A black British audience for this theatre exists, but so does an audience that might not be black, but would find the plays just as fascinating because, crucially, they’re well written.”
The readings were followed by a wide-ranging post-performance discussion, Black British Theatre and Beyond: Telling Stories about Blackness across the Diaspora, by a panel chaired by Minamore, Sophia A Jackson, founder and editor of the Afridiziak website – which covers African-Caribbean theatre – and playwrights Inua Ellams and Jasmine Lee-Jones.
The timing was excellent. Lee-Jones’ Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner was fresh from a sell-out run at London’s Royal Court and Ellams’ Barber Shop Chronicles was running at the Roundhouse. Along with Hive City Legacy, produced by the Roundhouse with Briefs Factory, Barber Shop Chronicles was part of the Roundhouse summer season Fades, Braids and Identity – a wider arts programme focusing on black and brown artists exploring race, gender and identity.
As venues go, the Roundhouse is a good match for Global Voice Theatre’s mission. Billing itself as a “platform for stories unheard”, GVT sets out to work with international playwrights based outside the UK to showcase plays from the wider English-speaking world and in translation.
“However, we do the call-outs in English at the moment, purely because of capacity and funding,” says founder Lora Krasteva. “I would love to be able to open things up to other languages and I’m figuring out how to make it work.”
Bulgarian-born Krasteva, who works with producer Robin Skyer on Global Voices Theatre, is also part of With One Voice, the international arts and homelessness movement, which she says brings useful perspective to spreading GVT’s global remit: “With One Voice was part of the Cultural Olympiad at London 2012 and Rio 2016, showcasing homeless people’s creativity and giving a platform to changing perceptions about homelessness, and we hope to do the same in Tokyo in 2020.”
After working with Daniel Goldman at the Casa Latin American arts festival, Krasteva moved to London’s Arcola Theatre, where she met writer and translator William Gregory who, with the Arcola Queer Collective, had brought to the venue his Global Queer Plays staged readings in 2018.
Out of that came the inspiration for the model that in the same year kicked off the GVT series with Global Female Voices, curated by the Arcola Women’s Company. Events for 2019 have included Global Queer Voices, curated by Gregory, and next in line is November’s Global Latin American Voices at the Roundhouse.
“In the current social-political context, it has become increasingly radical to be international,” says Krasteva. “It is now more vital than ever to create spaces where different narratives, stories and voices can be heard. It’s important for these spaces to be intersectional, showcasing their true complexity and diversity.
“Global Black Voices and the rest of our events show there is an interest in this kind of work, so the industry shouldn’t be afraid to engage and look further afield when programming shows, funding projects or looking for collaborators.”
But there’s still a lot to be done at home, as Minamore points out: “The idea of what the theatre industry ‘needs’ is a bit more difficult than people like to admit. It’s easy to repeat platitudes about how our industry needs diversity when it comes to race – or gender, or class, or disability – but the truth is the industry doesn’t really need it.
“Instead, I think the industry should want diversity, and should want things like Global Black Voices to thrive. We should want black stories from across the diaspora, as well as want black British stories to be told on our stages.
“If there’s one thing GBV can teach us all, it’s that people want these stories. We might or might not ‘need’ them, but since theatre is this beautiful art form, why can’t simply wanting something be enough? Why should we have to justify the importance of seeing a wide range of stories with words like ‘need’?”
Black Global Voice: Six plays
Deux Femmes on the Edge de la Revolution
Writer: France-Luce Benson
The Preacher’s Wife
Writer: Shayera Dark
No Easter Sunday for Queers
Writer: Koleka Putuma
Country: South Africa
I Love Him But…
Writer: Maxwell Odoi-Yeboah
How Blood Go
Writer: Lisa Langford
Writer: Africa Ukoh
Facebook: GlobalVoicesTheatre, Twitter: @GlobalVoicesTh bridgetminamore.com; afridiziak.com
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