A flagship Manchester International Festival production billed as being co-created by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Idris Elba has become embroiled in controversy, after two emerging writers claimed they came up with the show first.
Sarah Henley and Tori Allen-Martin said they had felt “bullied and silenced” after they sought credit for their work.
However, Henley and Allen-Martin have come forward to claim they are the original creators of the play, which they say they conceived in 2013, after Elba invited Allen-Martin to create a new show based on music from his album Mi Mandela. Following this, it received a number of industry workshops.
Despite this, they claim they were sidelined from the project when Kwei-Armah became involved in 2018. Writing on the online publishing platform Medium, they allege that Kwei-Armah went on to create his own synopsis of the play – which they said had many similarities to their original and utilised their “ideas, characters and story development”.
They said they were eventually dismissed from the project at the end of 2018 and allege that Kwei-Armah’s revised version of the synopsis was amended after letters from their lawyers outlined the content they said had been lifted from their own.
When the pair were removed from the production, Henley and Allen-Martin were told their initial contract was no longer valid as the show was now a different project.
Neither Henley or Allen-Martin are credited on the show’s material. Writing on Medium, they said: “We put four years of work into that project, and the majority of those involved read our script, our proposal documents, our premise and our synopsis – there is no way it’s a ‘different project’, no matter how much it’s changed.”
They claimed their mental health has suffered as a result.
Henley told The Stage: “As far as we were concerned, this was going to be our big break. But when the rug started being pulled from under us, we had our own mini-meltdowns, essentially. I have not written very much since then and I am a bit like, ‘What is the point?’, though the fire and fight is coming back now. We definitely both lost our spark.”
She said they had also lost faith in theatre and said the experience left them questioning the value of contracts – with their own being signed in 2016, giving them the right to veto any other writer brought in.
“It seems having a contract is only as valuable as the money you are willing to put behind defending it, and we don’t have any,” Henley said.
The pair took legal advice and were told they would be looking at around £20,000 to defend themselves in court.
Although they feel their contract was breached, “litigation tends to favour those with deeper pockets”, they said.
Henley also expressed concern about the damage the experience has had on her and Allen-Martin’s writing careers.
When the project was announced in October 2018 their names were not attached to it. The pair claim they were contacted by people who had seen the early showcases asking them why, and said this had been “professionally damaging”.
Henley and Allen-Martin said Elba was the only person involved to have actively communicated with them personally. They added they felt “bullied and silenced” by others during the row, with Henley claiming lawyers representing the production threatened to shut down another play Allen-Martin had written.
Following the controversy, Henley and Allen-Martin have decided to set up a theatre company, called Burn Bright, which they hope will support female writers “who are struggling to be heard”. It aims to launch a fund for which female writers can apply with “as little red tape as possible”.
The company will also operate a forum in which people can seek advice. The writers are now fundraising to support the company and to cover legal fees they have paid out over Tree.
Henley said she did not think this would have happened had they been men.
“If we had been two male, Oxbridge writers with representation and a great network, it definitely would not have happened. I think in this industry it would be harder to do it to two guys,” Henley said.
Both the Young Vic and the Manchester International Festival have been contacted for comment.