Black Theatre in London 1979-1982
In the 1970s and 80s there was an explosion of new black-led theatre companies in the UK, primarily focused in London. This came about through frustration at being marginalised and misunderstood but was also inspired by the achievements of playwrights such as Barry Reckord, Errol John, and Wole Soyinka in the 50s and 60s. The next generation of theatre producers and makers sought not only to stage plays exploring what it meant to be black and British, but also to create an environment where young black practitioners could access training in all aspects of theatre-making.
Photographs by Michael Mayhew and new artwork by Cherelle Sappleton
This exhibition of photographs from the National Theatre Archive's Michael Mayhew Collection is a rare snapshot of the work developed by black theatre practitioners between 1979 and 1982. Michael Mayhew was the National Theatre’s Art Director (from 1976 - 2009) when he was first asked by Charlie Hanson to take publicity photographs of the newly established Black Theatre Co-operative. Shot in 35mm black-and-white film on a Nikon EL2 camera, Mayhew’s tightly framed images capture the emergence of the Black Theatre Co-operative and a spirit of hope in its cast and company members. Mayhew went on to shoot more images of theatre productions and rehearsals with Foco Novo and Temba Theatre, leaving a legacy of over 1000 newly digitised photographs at the NT Archive. Mayhew deposited his collection at the National Theatre Archive in 2012. Researching this collection revealed that in addition to photographing productions at the National, his private collection also documented a fascinating and rarely revisited period in black British theatre history.
To respond to this archive collection, the NT has commissioned Cherelle Sappleton, a young British/Caribbean visual artist whose work focuses on photography, moving image and collage.
Sappelton's artwork responds to the energy and resilience borne out of the frustrations experienced by these black theatre practitioners and their determination to make spaces for their work. It also considers the ways in which they collaborated as individuals and collectives to examine black British experiences. For Sappleton, Mayhew's images provide the opportunity to pause and consider the politics of 'making' and the spaces in which creative work can be made. As she explains, 'my collages are normally made from disposable or freely accessible materials such as magazines, but here I'm using historical documents as source artwork and this is complex. There is a sacredness in what is held in this archive. But archives are not complete, and if they are doing their jobs well, they will constantly transform’.
Curator — Natasha Bonnelame
Archivist — Erin Lee
Archive Digitisation — Pawel Jaskulski and Ge Zhang
Graphic Design — Jamie Malcolm
Printed Graphics — Bias Blue
Installation Build — Sam Greenfield
Lighting — Huw Llewelyn
Sound — Richard Moores
Production Management — Jen Lunn and Lisa Burke
Exhibition Team — Judith Merritt, Perri Blakelock, Ingrid Marvin