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Brixton’s new Black Cultural Archives deserve to be well funded in future

brixton black culture archive Crowds in Windrush Square at the opening of the Black Cultural Archive. Photo: Paul Reid
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There was a huge street party. Rappers, poets, reggae bands and classical musicians all turned up to entertain the 3,000-strong crowd.

They were mostly – but not exclusively – black, and it is ironic that last time there were celebrations like this in this part of London was almost exactly 30 years ago when the West Indies had completed its ‘blackwash’ of the English cricket test team a couple of hundred yards up the road at The Oval.

Yet this was not to mark some great sporting triumph, the arrival of a superstar or a good court result (an occasional cause for celebration around here). It was for the opening of – you will never guess – an archive. But what a very special archive it is.

[pullquote]The Black Cultural Archives, by far the largest of its kind, spent 30 years in a room above a Camberwell chicken shop[/pullquote]

The Black Cultural Archives (BCA), which opened in late July, “means black people have a place now, our place” according to BCA director Paul Reid. This former Liberal club now houses the story of black people in Britain, significantly the West Indian influx, but embracing all black cultures. It is by far the largest of its kind, the only one that focuses on culture rather than politics or activism, and for 30 years and more it had languished in plastic bags on the shelves of a room above a Camberwell chicken shop, and then in a Kennington house in Othello Close.

In front of the BCA’s new home is a courtyard – a performance space – and in front of that a larger space, Windrush Square (named for the ship that brought the first post-war immigrants from the Caribbean in 1948).

“We don’t have a theatre space, but people are already laying claim to the outside areas for performance,” Reid says. “Because we’re not just a store for heritage records. It’s a story and we’ve got to echo it out, animate it and amplify it. Heritage is functional and when it comes to the context of black people I think it can change lives.”

And that means the archive is there not only for research, but to inspire theatre. Among his patrons are Idris Elba and Kwame Kwei-Armah who are already showing interest in material held in the BCA.

Reid sees the BCA as a potential vehicle to answer the recently highlighted shortage in work for black actors and playwrights, not to challenge Talawa but to take a role some steps before touring companies like that can take over.

“People like Idris, Kwame and Delroy Lindo, all British actors, playwrights and directors, have had to go to the States to make their careers take off. We think we can inspire work that will make this more than just their spiritual home,” Paul Reid says.

But what he hopes will also come from an association with theatre is some income, at least eventually. Having raised £7m to convert the derelict building, he now has to raise £600,000 a year to keep it open, and potential partners are being asked to take centre stage.

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