Do Black Artists Have A Future?

05/09/2016 12:05 | Updated 05 September 2016

With Brexit and the resulting rise in hate crime; more Black deaths in police custody and French Burkini bans - not to mention Trump - there recently seems to have been a simultaneous global surge to the right.

At times like these, it's even more important than usual to have a variety of voices making sense of events. The diversification of online media has started to see a wider range of journalists, bloggers and social commentators developing their voices. But we need diverse artists too, to help us re-examine the past, question the present and imagine the future. Is it as easy to democratise the arts as it is the media?

When Talawa Theatre Company was set up thirty years ago, the mission was to get Black actors playing roles they would never ordinarily get. Those arguments are still happening today, but there's a bigger question at hand - who decides what's put on stage?

Making theatre is an intensive task. It is hard to squeeze in between classes, shifts at work, or while caring for family members. Our industry seems predicated on people being financially self-supporting at the start of their careers. It is no surprise, therefore, that a recent review by the Equality and Human Rights Commission found Black and ethnic minority people in Britain still face entrenched race inequality in many areas. While Black graduates earn on average 23.1% less than white ones, it is no wonder that lots of artists have to drop out of the arts due to personal circumstances including: family pressures, work commitments or financial difficulties.

As a regular Talawa writer recently said to me:

"I simply haven't got the time to work on [my play] because I have to prioritise my time on projects that bring an income into my household. My household is entirely dependent on my income."

For this reason, we continue to shape, change, contribute to and challenge the dominant narrative by supporting and developing Black artists, reimagining the classics and producing new Black British work.

When talking to young Black actors, writers and directors, conversations quickly turn to the frustration of having to wait for someone to open a door for them; to allow them to make and share their art.

For me, one of the big questions facing our industry today is: How do we give talented young artists of all ethnicities, genders, socio-economic statuses and abilities the space to hold a mirror up to our society?

Talawa's solution for the past 21 years has been our TYPT programme, where we develop and nurture the next generation of Black theatre makers. This year's company have developed Hatch, a dystopian vision of a London divided by 'cleansing' operations.

I am overjoyed that programmes like TYPT can allow young artists to develop their artistic voices, and in rehearsals their hunger for self-expression is immediately apparent. Yet it truly saddens me that their explorations into self-expression can conjure up such harrowing visions of the future.

The fictions within Hatch are compelling. But like all good stories of dystopia, it stems from concerns that permeate all aspects of their lives in the present. Namely, what does it mean to be Black in Britain after generations of discrimination?

I hope that we move towards a future far removed from the dystopia imagined in Hatch. But for that hope to become a reality, we need companies and organisations like ours to be empowered to support emerging artists, for there to be opportunities for careers in theatre and for there to be a far wider range of stories being told on our stages.

In our 30th year we remain more committed than ever to achieving this aim. It's not too late. Watch this space.