Tuesday, 11 May 2004

Has time stood still in the West End?

Sunday 9th May 2004, The Observer, headline "West End seeks the sound of black music". A piece from the 1950s? The 1980s perhaps? Or, embarrassingly, if the West End is really that far behind regional theatre across the country the early 1990s? No, it was in last Sunday's paper, and here we are in 2004. As the author of the report Vanessa Thorpe puts it "Black artists are at the cutting edge of the music industry in Britain, but the West End has yet to play host to a show which celebrates their music" and she quotes Brigid Larmour of ACT Productions "It is quite shocking that this hasn't happened yet. It would be very sad if racism is playing any part in that".
Considering the major work with Black artists in London at the Hackney Empire (calling itself Britain's leading black theatre) and the Theatre Royal Stratford East (whose musical theatre initiative to develop new contemporary musicals that represent the eclecticism of multicultural London is now in its third year), the Arts Council's BRIT (Black Regional Initiative in Theatre), Eclipse and decibel initiatives, the work of prominent regional theatres such as Nottingham Playhouse ("we make bold and thrilling theatre. It is world-class, made in Nottingham and as diverse as our community") and ... well just try googling "black theatre uk" and you'll get over 800,000 choices to pursue, how could we have reached 2004 and still be headlining what I would now expect to be mainstream, beyond specific comment other than in reviews and well, just part of the cultural happenings of everyday folk?
If we look at the scene a year from now will it be fundamentally different? When our communities in London and elsewhere are increasingly diverse, when Birmingham will be the first majority black city in the near future, can we still be wondering if black artists will be adequately represented and their work promoted as anything other than a one-off, a fashion statement, a special season or access initiative?
Theatre Royal Stratford East's mission statement says that it will "lead in the development of shows which reflect both specific ethnic identity and multiculturalism", so dealing in its own way (if unintentionally) with the comments that received so much attention made recently by Commission for Racial Equality head Trevor Phillips. In answering his call for integration and an end to multiculturalism, black artists responded in every way imaginable - it seems that after all there is no one way to define our identities or the process for getting to be part of a world we admire rather than fear or despise. Perhaps we should wait for the day that the Royal can draw a line through its bold clear mission because it no longer needs to draw specific attention to something that has become so basic, fundamental, part of the furniture, and where an artist doesn't have to be defined by their colour because their work gets the profile it deserves. Then we will finally have a theatre sector to be proud of, and where racism plays no part.