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Mark Shenton: Mainstream theatre has a long way to go on race and gender

Gemma Arterton in Nell Gwynn at the Apollo Theatre. Photo:Tristram Kenton Gemma Arterton in Nell Gwynn at the Apollo Theatre. Photo:Tristram Kenton
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I’ve previously discussed the under-representation of female writers of musicals on Broadway. But it’s not just musicals. Last week, we welcomed a rarity: a new play, Nell Gwynn – about a woman, written by a woman and brought to Shaftesbury Avenue from Shakespeare’s Globe by three female producers (Nica Burns, Eleanor Lloyd and Paula Marie Black) – opened at the Apollo.

It joined a West End line-up in which female writers are represented otherwise only by the inevitable Agatha Christie (The Mousetrap), Lolita Chakrabarti (Red Velvet) and Caryl Churchill (Escaped Alone) on the plays front.

Musicals with female authorship contributions are Beautiful (Carole King’s songs and story), Kinky Boots (Cyndi Lauper’s songs), Mamma Mia!, Wicked, Wonder.land and Bend It Like Beckham (whose books are respectively authored by Catherine Johnson, Winnie Holzman, Moira Buffini and Gurinder Chadha). Otherwise, authors of current West End musicals are also all-male.

Things are looking up, a bit, at the National, where revivals of plays by the late Sarah Kane (Cleansed) and Lorraine Hansberry (Les Blancs) will soon be joined by a new play imported from Off-Broadway by Annie Baker (The Flick) and a contemporary adaptation of Erdman’s The Suicide by NT Studio writer-in-residence Suhayla El-Bushra.

But a serious lack of female representation in the theatre is evident at the top creative line of work that’s actually put on – even more so among people of colour (though four of the women named above – three living, one dead – are coincidentally not white).

After the recent Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards, one critic raised a concern with me that women were under-represented among the winners, winning outright in only three categories (out of nine). But given that the votes in all categories outside the best actor and best actress categories are entirely gender-neutral, with critics able to nominate anyone they wish to, an appropriate gender-equality balance cannot be legislated. (The complaining critic had herself voted for men in four of the categories, including the male winner for best director.)

Not a single non-white theatre critic works on mainstream publications in London

But apart from the best musical win for Bend It Like Beckham, for which director and co-author Chadha collected the award with her composer Howard Goodall, it was also an all-white ceremony – not least because there’s not a single non-white theatre critic working on mainstream publications in London.

In a programme essay for the National’s new production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, critic John Lahr points out that between 1959, when Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun premiered on Broadway, and the 1984 opening of the original production of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey, “the number of African-American plays to succeed on Broadway was zero”.

Contrast that to today, when a stage musical version of The Color Purple is now a Broadway hit again (in a production that arrived via London’s Menier Chocolate Factory). Hamilton recounts American history through a multi-ethnic cast and was written by the Manhattan-born but Puerto Rican-descended Lin-Manuel Miranda. There’s also the life story of Cuban-born Gloria Estefan on offer in On Your Feet!.

All this means that the Great White Way, as it sometimes called, isn’t all-white anymore. And the trend is continuing. Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie is currently in previews ahead of an official opening next week (February 25) starring, for the first time on Broadway, an African-American actor, Forest Whitaker, in the lead role (I’ll be reviewing the show for The Stage). The most eagerly anticipated musical of the season, at least by me, is Shuffle Along, based on the 1921 musical that made history at the time for being produced, written and performed entirely by African-Americans. This time, though, the lead producer is Scott Rudin, a white man.

Broadway has also just sent Motown to London. Now in previews at the Shaftesbury, it brings a powerful blast of non-white musical songwriting talent to the West End, though part of the history of Motown is that the music was somewhat manipulated and targeted to appeal to white record-buyers.

As pop-music historian Bob Batchelor writes in his book American Pop: Popular Culture Decade by Decade, Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr “brought soul music closer to pop so his recordings would appeal to a wide audience, including white listeners. The Motown sound tended to be smoother than the sharp-edged soul that some other labels were producing, but still often retained such traditional soul techniques as rhythmic repetitions and call-and-response patterns of phrasing.”

But if black music has sometimes been targeted at whites, we also need black plays and artists to draw black audiences, too. That was the problem at Richmond’s Orange Tree last week, where I saw Chris Urch’s The Rolling Stone: the cast was all-black, the matinee audience entirely white. There’s still a long way to go.

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