In 1957, Moon on a Rainbow Shawl by Trinidad-born dramatist Errol John won a playwriting contest organised by the Observer – but its promised West End run was rejected by producers who deemed it unsuitable for audiences. They didn’t think it would sell tickets, so a year later it opened at the Royal Court instead. We can only wonder what the landscape of black British theatre would look like today if the West End production had gone ahead.
Now 60 years on, two smash hits by black British playwrights have transferred to the West End at once: Arinzé Kene’s Misty is currently at Trafalgar Studios, where Natasha Gordon’s Nine Night will open in December. First staged at the Bush and the National Theatre respectively, both hits are on course to widen the image of what a West End playwright looks like.
Gordon has been hailed as the first black British female playwright to have a play in the West End. But she asks: “How can I celebrate that in 2018? If I want to take that as an individual achievement, then sure, but what does that do towards moving us forward and opening the ground for the younger generation?”
Sitting with her at a cafe in north London, Kene nods approvingly. Much is being made of how many – or how few – black British playwrights have hit the West End before them. It’s more than 10 years since Kwame Kwei-Armah’s Elmina’s Kitchen was staged at the Garrick. The Big Life, a 2004 ska musical, had a score by black musician Paul Joseph, with book and lyrics by white dramatist Paul Sirett. Ray Harrison Graham’s play Gary did a 1990 run at the Arts theatre. Mustapha Matura’s Play Mas transferred to the West End from the Royal Court in the 70s. There are still gaps in the history of black theatre so it’s hard to know exactly who came first – and how useful is our preoccupation with “firsts” anyway?
“I feel like each time we have that conversation it negates what has gone before,” Gordon says, shaking her head. “The work that’s been done by so many black playwrights, black theatre groups, companies that existed in the 80s but closed due to a lack of support. We have these conversations about ‘the first’ as though there’s a sudden boom or it’s a fad, and I don’t think it helps us to sustain.”
Kene and Gordon have never met before but greet each other warmly. He “loved” Nine Night; she booked for Misty’s opening night as soon as she heard about the transfer. Gordon has Jamaican heritage and was born in London in 1975, while Kene was born in Nigeriain 1987 – his family settled in London when he was a child.
A classic family drama, Nine Night revolves around the Caribbean tradition of hosting guests at a kind of extended wake for nine days after a death. Gordon describes the play as grappling with the tradition: “Why do we still have it, what does it mean, where does it come from? That was very much inspired by my experience when my grandma passed away.” Gordon will unexpectedly be taking on the lead role of Lorraine, the oldest daughter at the centre of Nine Night, in the West End. “It came down to practicality in the end, having a short rehearsal process and not everybody being able to come back.”
In Misty, an experimental gig-theatre show, Kene plays a fictional version of himself. “It’s an absurd version,” he says, “one that we’ve pushed and pulled to get me to say stuff that I wouldn’t. You get Arinzé the writer in the play, Arinzé in the here and now when I break away and am speaking to the audience, then you get Virus [a character in the play the fictional Arinzé is writing] … When you add them all up, then that’s what I feel most of the time. I feel like I wrote a play that was braver than I can be.”
Gordon, who had never thought of writing a play before, wrote Nine Night following encouragement from a small group of black female actor friends in their 40s. Calling themselves the Brunch (after the time of day they would meet), they forged solidarity in an industry that breeds competition. Kene also shares early drafts of his work with his peers, in particular actors Daniel Kaluuya and Anthony Welsh.
As with Kwei-Armah in Elmina’s Kitchen, both Kene and Gordon find themselves on stage, too, which opens up a discussion about the dearth of interesting, challenging parts for black actors.
“If I look back at one of the reasons why I even wrote the play in the first place, [there was a] frustration with the lack of opportunities to show ourselves in a different light, where we’re not always the social worker or the nurse,” Gordon says. Kene, too, feels as though his acting influenced his writing: “When I started acting, writing felt like a very natural thing to start doing because of the lack of complex, multidimensional roles. Then, when they came about, I realised that there weren’t enough to go around.”
The discussion around black British playwrights is inextricably linked to audiences, black or not. Perceptions that black audiences don’t come, or that white audiences won’t care, are changing. Gordon says that at Nine Night’s first preview, “at 7.20pm in the auditorium it was mostly white people and I thought OK, this is as I expected. And then at 7.29pm, I looked around and went, ‘Oh my God. We’re here! This is happening!’” Gordon and Kene both laugh.
The Black Ticket Project, a crowdfunded scheme to help young black people see plays with a black British focus, was an early supporter of both shows. Their plays were sellouts, boosted in part by word of mouth. “I genuinely believe Misty would not be in the West End if it were not for all the people who don’t regularly come to the theatre coming to see the play, talking to their mates about it, getting their mates to come,” Kene says. “It’s about getting back in touch with those people, finding more of them, and saying here is a play that appeals to you, that speaks to you. When I saw [Nine Night] I saw people who look like me, who look like my relatives. It’s not often that it feels that way. When we were doing One Night in Miami at the Donmar, one thing that felt quite weird was that you had six black bodies on stage, and then out in an audience of about 300, you would get a handful. Some nights there were more black people on stage than there were in the audience. It jars a little bit as a performer, and it’s just like, what’s going on here?”
Kwei-Armah, who is now the artistic director of the Young Vic, tells me: “When Elmina’s Kitchen opened on the West End, there was a feeling of a ceiling being smashed; I was completely humbled. That now feels like a crack in the glass. We all have a responsibility to ensure more work by black British playwrights is seen and heard, and that we programme work that challenges the often limiting perceptions of blackness.”
The Alfred Fagon Award for the best play by a black British writer continues to find real gems. However, it’s damning to note that, year on year, most of the shortlisted plays haven’t been produced. It’s clear the writing is happening, and the writing is good, but the platforms aren’t there.
So how are Kene and Gordon feeling about their West End playwriting debuts? Kene smiles at Gordon, asks for a high five and gets one. “That’s how I feel about it.” They both laugh. “Oh, for sure I’m nervous.” Gordon adds. “But more excited now. Now that it’s coming closer and closer, the excitement is starting to seep into my big toes.”
“There is momentum,” Kene adds. “In fact, there always has been. It started way before I was born. This is our part in this moment, after the work of Barry Reckord and Winsome Pinnock, Roy Williams and Kwame, and everybody else who I’m missing out. This is us all pushing together, and I definitely feel like this is what we should be doing. This is why it feels good. This is why I want to really celebrate it, and never stop celebrating it. I see it as a fire, and sometimes a fire is raging, and sometimes it’s kind of burning but it’s really small. I want it to rage for as long as possible.”