It was by chance last week that I heard of Walk in the Light, the week-long exposition and celebration of Black artists and the contribution they have made to British Theatre in the last 50 years. I was surprised that I heard about it only by word of mouth and not from what is usually the efficient marketing machine that is the National Theatre. Is it weird to say that it also felt remarkable that something like this was happening at all at The National Theatre?
I accompanied a respected academic who works in theatre and while she nodded with familiarity at the billed names, I have to say that I recognised only one of the faces. I recognised her for playing Shirley in Desmond's, the Black sitcom that was set in a Peckham barber's shop and that ran for five years on Channel 4 in the late eighties and nineties. Little did I know either of Carmen Munroe's greater achievements (accomplished stage and television actress, director, OBE, co-founder of Talawa theatre) or the rich history of Black contribution to the British stage.
In this opening talk of the series, Carmen Munroe and Don Warrington were both bewitching; Munroe with her passionate meandering anecdotes and Warrington with his considered authoritative answers. In the arched Olivier hall, it felt surprisingly intimate perhaps because the talk started at 3pm but more likely because there was awe around what these two pioneers and inevitable activists had achieved.
Three things that I remember, of what I felt was too short an hour, were these. First, that at least to me, it is easy to forget how socially inhospitable the fifties were for Black people in UK. Having been born in an English colony, Munroe recalled that when she arrived here she was in many ways unprepared and she like many other people from the Caribbean found that they were treated as foreigners, much to their surprise. Second is the supportive Caribbean community that formed so as to, as Munroe says, "share the pride and dignity with which they came [here] with." I thought this was a beautiful turn of phrase; finding a way to keep alive a sense of humanity and set down roots in the face of such systemic intolerance. The response that for me left the deepest impression came from Warrington though. A representative of the National Theatre asked why it was that as a space it was so poor at attracting Black audiences. Warrington, with measured contemplation replied that if the National is as it claims, a space for the whole nation and for them - Black audiences - too, then the best way to find out how best to attract them was to ask them. This was a brilliant response, asking the National, essentially a white middle class organisation, to take a look at how it dialogues with Black audiences. It also strips away any comfort that Black audiences are one homogenous easy-to-target group or that there is a simplistic answer.
The following talk that evening with Oscar James and Mustapha Matura created a little of the excitement you feel as a young child when you're allowed to stay up late and listen to your elders reminiscing on their younger days. The easy camaraderie was clear as in fact James had starred in several of Matura's plays. Together they recreated a sense of the London theatre scene of the 1960's and 1970's right there on stage. There is something humbling about seeing the first British-based Black writer to have his work performed at the National Theatre and then realise that this only happened in 1991! James reiterated the job of being an actor - the endless rounds of looking for work and the multiple working lives that many actors take on to pay the bills.
In all of this what I am left with is a sense that although to some people Black actors are only now arriving, they - like the Black population - have been a significant part of this society for seventy years. And as Munroe said this is part of the work they have had to do; "to be recognised as a citizen of this country, not as the next iteration of the immigrant."
Walk in the Light is cleverly divided into four parts. Part 1: In the Wings... 1960-1980 was hosted on Monday. On Thursday 18th July Part Two "Onto the Stage ... 1980-2000" will include 3pm discussions with David Harewood and Gary Wilmot discussing their stories in the context of a changing social and theatrical landscape. The evening event at 6pm will see Bonnie Greer and Paulette Randall (currently directing Fences at the Duchess Theatre) discuss their perspectives. Friday's "Into the Spotlight" will delve into the experiences of Black actors in the last thirteen years and their increasing flight to, recognition and success in Hollywood. The week will culminate in a celebration of song, word and movement and I'm excited to be able to join in and bookend this extraordinary platform which will capture this important half century journey.
Walk in the Light running until Sunday 21 July.