This exhibit tells the story of how black writers and directors have used theatre to explore issues at the heart of society, establishing themselves as a vital part of the National Theatre's repertoire.
Bread, by Trinidadian playwright Mustapha Matura, was one of the first black plays produced by the National, in 1976.
The play examines the plight of a struggling black playwright, and starts with an incensed analysis of why black playwrights don't get their work produced.
It was one of six plays chosen for the opening season at the new Cottesloe Theatre, however it was staged at the Young Vic, due to building works.
“I got a job in Rome pulling curtains for a play by Langston Hughes. [...] Langston Hughes turned up every night and I was in the wings waiting for the show to end, watching this wonderful play about poor blacks in American tenements and thought I could do something similar to this but with West Indian people. [...] I came back to England and got a non-demanding job in a factory and gradually began writing plays.”
- Mustapha Matura, 2013
In 1979, frustrated by the lack of interest from fringe theatres in his play Welcome Home Jacko, Mustapha Matura co-founded the Black Theatre Co-operative with British director Charlie Hanson.
The company supported, commissioned and produced work by black writers in Britain, and continues to do so under the name of Nitro.
In the 1970s and the 1980s the National Theatre worked with black directors and writers to establish links and develop plays.
The NT Studio, a theatre laboratory, produced Black Poppies, a dramatisation of the experiences of black servicemen from World War II to the present day, and Soul Night by Tunde Ikoli, staging them as works-in-progress in the Cottesloe theatre.
More, More by Mustapha Matura and Scrape Off The Black by Tunde Ikoli were produced as NT Extras on the Olivier and Lyttelton stages, scheduled before the main performance.
Percy Mtwa's Bopha!, staged in the Cotteslie in 1987, was the first play produced in association with the Market Theatre in Johannesburg.
The Market Theatre was founded in 1976 by Barney Simon and Mannie Manim in apartheid-era South Africa and was one of the first theatres to circumvent a 1965 law that forbade racially mixed casts and audiences, at a time when white and black South Africans were forbidden to socialise and live in the same neighbourhoods, and black artists risked arrest whenever they broke government curfews to attend rehearsals or performances.
Bopha! means arrest, and depicts the divided loyalties and compromised position of the black police force in apartheid South Africa.
“In South Africa’s black townships there are no theatres. Performances take place in community halls, church halls, cinemas and schools and classrooms – venues which do not provide facilities and conditions necessary for professional performances. Out of this environment black theatre companies emerged from many townships all over South Africa.”
- Percy Mtwa, July 1986
In 2000 The Market Theatre and the National Theatre marked two decades of artistic association, staging The Island, in the Lyttelton; a play written by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona and set on Robben Island, the prisoners' camp where Nelson Mandela was held for 22 years
The artistic association with The Market Theatre featured a number of Athol Fugard plays, including Master Harold and the Boys (1983) and My Children! My Africa! (1990), and the NT Studio held a two-week residency at The Market Theatre in Johannesburg in 1994.
“Barney [Simon] took the raw materials of life and out of them made a theatre which told the unvarnished truth with humanity, wit, passion and poetry. For many years he enabled us in London to hear the unofficial voice of South Africa, and to glimpse its new face long before it became a political reality.”
- Sir Richard Eyre, Artistic Director of the National Theatre 1988-1997, in correspondence with John Kani, 5 July 1995
Mustapha Matura’s The Coup: A Play of Revolutionary Dreams, was the first work by a Caribbean writer commissioned by the National Theatre.
Performed in the Cottesloe Theatre in 1991, the play opens with the corrupt Trinidadian president Eddie Jones (Norman Beaton) deposed by the military and brutally imprisoned.
Matura’s fictional coup turns into high-farce as the revolutionary plans of the Trinidadian army generals swiftly descend into chaos. What unfolds on William Dudley’s set of faux palm trees and paper parrots, is the tragedy at the heart of post-independence Caribbean nations – the struggle to fashion a post-colonial identity among the debris and injustice of colonial history.
First presented at the Liverpool Playhouse in 1987, Leave Taking by Winsome Pinnock was produced by the National Theatre’s Education Department as a mobile production, in January 1995.
Central to this drama of cross-generational conflict is Jamaican matriarch Enid, whose views on England are challenged by her London-born daughters as they attempt to construct their own vision of black British identity in London.
“When I was growing up as a writer there were lots of black male writers writing about this very experience, of the immigrant community or the black community at a particular time but there weren’t any women writing and that experience seemed just not to be represented. I remember really wanting to somehow write about the world that I knew or the world I knew something about or things I’d seen and felt that weren’t being explored.”
- Winsome Pinnock, January 1995
Despite a considerable number of black women developing and producing a critical body of work in the late 1970s and 1980s, Leave Taking is a rare example of the black British woman’s voice and experience being heard on the National Theatre’s stage.
Feminist organisations such as Theatre of Black Women, founded in 1982 by playwrights Patricia Hilaire, Bernardine Evaristo and Paulette Randall, Black Mime Theatre, established by Denise Wong in 1984, and Talawa Theatre Company, set up by Yvonne Brewster in 1985, seek to redress the balance.
At the turn of the 21st century a new voice was emerging: that of second-generation black Britons concerned with what it meant to be both black and British.
During the 2000s, the National Theatre produced a triptych of plays by Kwame Kwei-Armah: Elmina’s Kitchen (2003), Fix Up (2004) and Statement of Regret (2007).
Elmina’s Kitchen was named after the notorious slave fort in Ghana and set in a Caribbean restaurant in the London borough of Hackney.
In Elmina's Kitchen, Kwei-Armah challenges simplistic notions surrounding black identity and voices concern at mainstream representations of urban violence and black masculinity.
After a sell-out run in the Cottesloe theatre, the award-winning play transferred to the Garrick Theatre in 2005, making Kwei-Armah the first black Briton to have a play staged in London’s West End.
Set in a south London pub during a World Cup qualifier between England and Germany, Roy Williams' play Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads (2002) offers a complex meditation on race, class and nationalism, peeling away the layers of confusion and intolerance experienced by both white and black Britons as they struggle to understand what it means to be British.
“The audience is complicit, or is made to be complicit, with an awful lot of the things that are said in this pub, and we effectively become like those people who sit in a pub and hear certain things said and don’t do anything about it.”
- Paul Miller, director, May 2004
Originally produced in 2002 as part of the Transformation season in the Lyttelton Loft, the play was redesigned, recast and redirected when it returned to the larger Cottesloe theatre in 2004.
“I think that’s where people get Sing Yer Heart Out wrong sometimes: when they think it’s a play about racism. It’s not. It’s got characters expressing racist views, of course, but I’ve always felt it’s a play about nationalism. It’s about what people do sometimes, and what they do to themselves, in order to belong to something. To say I belong to this group, I belong to this country, we all look alike and we want to defend ourselves. That’s what the heart of the play was really about.”
- Roy Williams, 2013
Often interpreted as a clash between African and Western world views, Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman interrogates African modernity and political agency from an African perspective.
Written in 1975, the play received its British première in 1990 at the Manchester Royal Exchange. It was produced by the National Theatre in 2009 and directed by Rufus Norris for the Olivier theatre.
The play is about an incident that took place in 1945, when the horseman to the Alafin of Oyo in Nigeria (King) was arrested by colonial authorities as he prepared for his ritual suicide.
In Soyinka’s tragedy the Yoruba world view – that Elesin the horseman must commit suicide – is confronted by Simon Pilkings, a secular British colonial official for whom ritual suicide is barbaric.
While Pilkings is a catalyst for the tragic actions that unfold, Elesin’s failure to die is a reflection of his own human weakness.
Directed by Rufus Norris, the production featured an all-black cast who 'whited up' to represent colonial characters.
“The play may not suit every taste. But it is breathtakingly staged and reminds us that there are other value systems in the world than our own increasingly secular, short-term materialism.”
- Michael Billington, 22 April 2009
Having initially received awards, when it was first produced in 1957, and prompted interest in black playwrights, Moon on a Rainbow Shawl by Errol John had since been relatively ignored.
Michael Buffong's 2012 production of Moon on a Rainbow Shawl in the Cottesloe theatre, brought it back into the spotlight, and the play was praised for its lyrical script and vibrant evocation of post-war Trinidad.
“Errol John brings a real sense of texture to his writing in this play. It is full of materials and sounds, and, elements and heat.”
- Actor Martina Laird, 2012
There is a renewed interest in the work of neglected black writers, and the National Theatre actively works to commission new writers and directors. Recent productions at the National Theatre include Inua Ellams' The 14th Tale (2010) and Black T-Shirt Collection (2012), and Michaela Coel's Chewing Gum Dreams (2014).
In 2009 the National Theatre launched the Black Plays Archive project, initiated by the playwright and former National Theatre Associate Kwame Kwei-Armah.
Kwame Kwei-Armah wished to explore and engage with African, Caribbean and black British writers produced in the UK, a number of which had been largely forgotten.
The project produced an online catalogue of the first professional production of every African, Caribbean, and Black British play produced in the U.K. This was made possible by support from Sustained Theatre and Arts Council England.
For more information about African, Caribbean and Black British plays produced in the UK, visit the National Theatre's Black Plays Archive at:
The NT archive holds records of all National Theatre productions and is open to everyone to research and explore.
This project is supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Curator — Natasha Bonnelame, project manager of the Black Plays Archive
Producer — Kat Sommers
Archivists — Erin Lee and Ge Zhang
Films — Dominic Brouard
Senior Digital Producer — Maya Gabrielle
Special thanks to — Lyn Hail, Michael Pearce and Emma Reidy