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Mark Shenton: In 2018, it’s extraordinary there are still glass ceilings for diverse theatremakers

Oliver Alvin-Wilson as Robert and Ricky Fearon as Uncle Vince in Nine Night at the National Theatre. Photo: Helen Murray Oliver Alvin-Wilson as Robert and Ricky Fearon as Uncle Vince in Nine Night at the National Theatre. Photo: Helen Murray
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You can only be first once – so it’s amazing that there are still glass ceilings for minority theatremakers to break. From the West End to Broadway and beyond, the sound of cracking glass is still being heard.

In December, Natasha Gordon’s Nine Night will transfer from the National’s Dorfman to Trafalgar Studios, making her the first black British female playwright to have a play in the West End. Kwame Kwei-Armah became the first British African-Caribbean playwright to have a play produced in the West End when his Elmina’s Kitchen transferred, again from the National, in 2005.

It was joined later that year by the transfer of the musical The Big Life from Theatre Royal Stratford East to the Apollo. At the time, Clint Dyer, the first black British man to direct a musical in the West End, said: “The wonderful thing about being black in this country is that you have an amazing opportunity to be the first at a lot of things.”

‘Dreamgirls took 35 years to cross the Atlantic for its West End debut’

Both Elmina’s Kitchen and The Big Life were, not coincidentally, produced by Bill Kenwright, who took a commercial risk – but someone had to blaze the trail. Even Kwei-Armah spoke of the challenges his play faced, telling WhatsOnStage: “Even though it’s Olivier-nominated and Evening Standard winning, there’s still a perception that a white audience won’t come to see a play that is quintessentially black. Somehow, we’re all so tribal that they’ll just go: ‘Oh, that’s one for the black audiences, so we can miss that one.’”

It’s one of the reasons Dreamgirls took 35 years to cross the Atlantic for its West End debut – a perception that there might not be a big enough audience for a ‘black’ musical to sustain a run in the West End. But that show is now booking until January 2019.

Dreamgirls, based on Diana Ross and the Supremes, opened nine months after Motown – a revue celebrating the record label that launched numerous careers, including the Supremes’ – made a transfer to the Shaftesbury.

As I wrote in my review of Dreamgirls for The Stage: “Along with Motown, the show sees the number of black performers in the West End growing – and it is pleasing to note a more diverse audience to the usual.”

Since then, we’ve also seen the West End premiere of Hamilton continuing to offer casting opportunities for black performers and creating a unique problem – the pool of talent available for other shows has been allegedly diminished. It led Trevor Jackson, Cameron Mackintosh’s head of casting, to state this was one of the reasons Half a Sixpence – which Mackintosh brought to the West End from Chichester in 2016 – had an all-white cast: “Many artists we would love to have seen weren’t available. Many others were not interested in signing up for a long commitment, holding out for shows they knew were coming.”

This contradicted an earlier statement made by Julian Fellowes, who adapted the book, that a decision was explicitly taken to exclude black performers on the grounds of historical verisimilitude – as he told Radio 4’s Front Row: “I can assure you Folkestone was not diverse, in terms of Folkestone society and all the rest of it.” To which I replied at the time: “Presumably there is historical evidence of the townspeople being inveterate banjo players.”

‘Black British actors still find themselves breaking new ground’

Chichester’s current revival of Me and My Girl happily doesn’t make the same mistake. Clive Rowe stars as Sir John Tremayne, devoted husband to Caroline Quentin’s Duchess of Dene. Rowe has long blazed the trail for diverse casting by the power of his unique talent, with leading roles that have included Enoch Snow in Carousel and Nicely-Nicely Johnson in Guys and Dolls (both at the National) as well as an Olivier nomination for his panto dame Mother Goose at Hackney Empire.

But if Rowe’s career is proof of there being no barrier for a big talent, black British actors still find themselves breaking new ground. Amara Okereke, who graduated from Arts Ed this year, has just joined the West End cast of Les Miserables as its first black Cosette. It has taken 32 years – since the show opened – for this to happen.

New ground was also broken in New York this week when Young Jean Lee became the first Asian-American woman to have a play on Broadway with the opening of Straight White Men. The achievement – and provocation – is richer for being about a people beyond her own race. She recently said: “There are people who resent any representation of straight white men, but it’s useful to write about straight white men from a non-straight-white-male perspective. Unlike people from other identity groups, they haven’t been forced all their lives to be aware that they’re straight white men and what that means.”

So, the play is not only a ground-breaker, it offers a new perspective on a familiar story.

Mark Shenton is associate editor of The Stage. Read his latest column every Wednesday and Friday here.

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