I'm still in a febrile state, the kind that comes I imagine, from testifying before the Lord and shouting out "Preach it sister" or "Amen brother man!" On Sunday I witnessed a rare privilege; the closing celebration of Walk in the Light http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/discover/platforms/walk-in-the-light-pt-4-centre-stage-a-celebration and the culmination of eight months' work by Giles Terera.
I'm not going to give you a minute by minute account of the two hours because what I set down here won't capture the pride, the participation, the tears (it's been an emotional week for me!) or the wonder. Up there on the Lyttleton Theatre stage, with a company of seventy-two talented performers, most of whom happen also to be Black and who offer an added and different perspective to the British national experience of theatre, I could not help but sit in awe at what they do. For the most part I see these Black artists when I buy tickets for entertainment or flick on my TV. Rarely do I stop to question how their blackness, their history and their hard-won successes have made it possible for me to watch a reflection of myself out there in popular culture.
Highlights included Sharon D Clarke's roof-raising, skin-tingling rousing opener of a number. Backed by the 'full colour' Walk in the Light Gospel Choir and led passionately by the bundle of energy that is Nathaniel Morrison, this set the tone of intimacy for the afternoon. Yes, these were professionals of the highest calibre highlighting some the best Black writing and acting talent over the last fifty years in this country, but it also felt as if I was meeting these individuals; individuals who were telling our stories, the stories that are a part of what is Britain today. As Lenny Henry reminded us to remember, ours is the spoken word - whether in the tall tales our grandparents regaled us with, in rap or in delivering the lines from say Mustapha Matura's groundbreaking work. From Alex Lanipekun's sketch from Kwei-Armah's Elmina's Kitchen to Adjoa Andoh and her heart-breaking turn as a grieving widow from Winsome Pinnock's piece, these are stories from our communities. Clive Rowe had the theatre gripped with the scintillating reprisal of his role as Nicely Nicely Johnson from Guys and Dolls. It was David Harewood's solemn reading of Neville Lawrence's statement about the night his son Stephen was murdered that reset a contemporary context. That the Lawrence family felt they could not bury Stephen here, that a Black British boy can still be unsafe even in death reiterates the social context for many Black people who even now struggle to feel accepted in Britain today. As Melanie Marshall's exquisite Agnus Dei requiem from Felix Cross' Mas Caribe washed over us, we were each silenced into personal reflection.
I have to make special mention of Giles Terera again here. He pulled together this extraordinary event. He wrote especially for that afternoon the moving poem We Will Walk With You which I hope to see published soon. And then rendered the audience speechless with his version of Make Them Hear You from Ragtime, the 1975 musical.
This was a long overdue acknowledgement of the contributions so many Black performers have made to British Theatre. And it was exciting to see so many different voices of the Black experience on stage - Ghanaian and Nigerian, Ethiopian-born Irish, Black British of South African and Swazi descent as well as the varied experiences from Caribbean islands. There were those who were born elsewhere and those who were born here. As ever, there are multiple voices and a plurality of perspectives that make up the Black community. If it sounds as if I have written superlative after superlative, that is simply because it was that kind of afternoon. But as Don Warrington says, "While it's good to remember, while we must never forget, we should also look forward to see what we are going to do out there." He was pointing out of the dim carpeted halls of the National Theatre where we are citizens and yet are still often seen as outsiders.
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