Adrian Lester and Natasha Parry in a 2000 production of Hamlet. Photo: Getty
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We need more racial diversity on the stage both sides of the pond

British theatre is part of an industry that produces highly skilled practitioners but doesn’t always know how to use them. Except stereotypically.

In 1825 the African-American actor Ira Aldridge came to London in The Slave’s Revenge. Before abolition, he had no hopes of working on the stage at home, but he became one of the most popular Shakespearean performers in Europe and was honoured by monarchs. A century later, Paul Robeson played Othello in London because racism made it impossible in the USA. He stayed and starred in six British films.

Now we’re facing an ironic reversal. There’s been much coverage of how black British actors are triumphing on US screens, and not on those in the UK. But the opportunities in theatre also don’t exist here. I have been investigating the history and the current state of play for British black and Asian theatre artists and producers. They tell me that local audiences – white, black, Asian – have become less open to productions that don’t reflect “their” communities. I’ve heard that fewer roles are being auditioned colour-blind, and young and established actors alike have said to me, in frustration, “I’m going to have to try America”.

How did this happen?

The actor Don Warrington has said that white actors’ careers run on “tramlines” partly shaped by the classical repertoire, whereas black actors’ employment is “stop-go”. Many are shunted into the sidings of Casualty, Holby City and countless police procedurals. In 2010, an unprecedented Guardian editorial complained that David Harewood – the National Theatre’s first black Othello, 13 years previously – was being given too few stage opportunities. Showtime promptly cast him as the CIA chief in Homeland.

Last year several African-American plays and musical dramas were staged in London, including August Wilson’s Fences with Lenny Henry. Optimism grew. But as Fences’ director Paulette Randall said, “It’s history repeating itself”.

Back in 1986, Yvonne Brewster founded Talawa, Britain’s foremost black-led theatre company. She fostered brilliant black playwrights and performers and laid claim to King Lear and Oscar Wilde. Meanwhile the actress Josette Simon was working her way up through the RSC’s ranks – from playing a desert-island sprite, a witch, and Cleopatra’s handmaid – to lead the company in 1987. Then she played Maggie – Marilyn Monroe – in Arthur Miller’s After the Fall at the National. The dramatist Bonnie Greer said she moved to London from Chicago because of the achievements of Simon’s generation.

British theatre is both art and part of an industry topped by film and television that produces highly skilled practitioners but doesn’t always know how to use them. Except stereotypically.

Multi-ethnic talent – especially policy-making talent – is essential off-stage as well as on. After a 2002 report revealed that 96 per cent of British theatre staff were white, the Arts Council launched a decade-long series of Race Equality schemes that called on all companies to draw up positive programmes. Some called this “Stalinist” but experience shows that in a “stop-go” climate isolated advances are often followed by complacency and reversals. Under the Conservative-led Government there have been disproportionately large “austerity” cuts to multicultural companies.

But committed practitioners will work with the tools available. Three leading black actors, Adrian Lester, Paterson Joseph and David Harewood, have all made TV documentaries working on Shakespeare with urban teenagers. In financially straightened times, Talawa’s current director Michael Buffong is working strategically alongside the mainstream system in the regions, with co-productions of Waiting for Godot and Miller’s All My Sons (with Don Warrington).

What is needed are artists prepared to ask inconvenient questions, which of course is traditionally the role of the writer. The American playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney has worked with and shaken up the RSC, directing Dharmesh Patel as Hamlet in a version for children: “If you’re from a minority and in the first show you see, everyone is white, a pattern builds.”

In the other direction, the Casualty actor Kwame Kwei-Armah took on the mission of dramatising a breadth of British black experiences, from street crime to the much less familiar world of politics and think-tanks. He inspired the National Theatre to create a vital database of black plays. He’s now artistic director of Baltimore’s Center Stage Theatre.

And how radically different is American theatre really?

Despite all the advances in positive discrimination from the 1960s onwards, last month Theatre for a New Audience in New York called a round-table to confront the barriers non-white performers still face. For instance, it emerged that no Romeo or Hamlet of colour has been cast by a mainstream American theatre for 35 years.

On the other hand, the very next day, the new Harlem Shakespeare Festival – created by the inspirational performer Debra Ann Byrd – commemorated the Shakespearean achievements of Aldridge, Robeson and Henrietta Vinton Davies (actress and activist: 1860-1941). The past can remind the present of what’s possible.

On 25 March, Adrian Lester and a London cast will remind New Yorkers of Ira Aldridge’s bitter struggles and astonishing victories when Lolita Chakrabarti’s acclaimed play Red Velvet transfers to the St Anne’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. Protest and celebration, British and American, must work together – because the Atlantic’s not just a lure, it’s a link.

The ConversationTony Howard receives funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). He is affiliated with the British Black and Asian Shakespeare project.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Tony Howard is Professor of English at the University of Warwick.

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Netflix's Ozark is overstuffed – not to mention tonally weird

Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

The main reason why Ozark, the new Netflix series, feels so underpowered has to do with its star, Jason Bateman (who also directs): a good actor who badly wants for charisma, he simply can’t carry it alone. Watching the first few episodes, I kept thinking of Jon Hamm in Mad Men and (a better example here) Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, both of whom played, as does Bateman, characters around which the plots of their respective series turned. When they were on screen, which was often, it was all but impossible to tear your eyes from them; when they were off it, you felt like you were only biding your time until they returned. But when Bateman disappears from view, you hardly notice. In fact, it feels like a plus: at least now you might get to see a bit more of the deft and adorable Laura Linney.

In Ozark, Bateman is Marty, an outwardly square guy whose big secret is that he is a money launderer for the second biggest drugs cartel in Mexico. When the series opens, he and his wife Wendy (Linney) and their two children are living in Chicago, where he nominally works as a financial advisor.

By the end of the first episode, however, they’re on their way to the Lake of the Ozarks in rural Missouri. Marty’s partner, Bruce, has been on the fiddle, and the cartel, having summarily executed him, now wants Marty both to pay back the cash, and to establish a few new businesses in which future income may be cleaned far from the prying eyes of the law enforcement agencies. If this sounds derivative, it is. We’re in the realm of Breaking Bad, only where that show gave us out-of-control Bunsen burners and flesh-eating chemicals, this one is more preoccupied with percentages and margins.

Where’s the friction? Well, not only is the FBI on Marty’s tail, his wife has been cheating on him, with the result that their marriage is now just another of his business arrangements. The locals (think Trump supporters with beards as big as pine trees) have proved thus far to be on the unfriendly side, and having paid off their debts, the only house Marty can afford has a cliché – sorry, crotchety old guy – living in the basement. On paper, admittedly, this all sounds moderately promising. But hilarity does not ensue. As dull as the Lake of the Ozarks when the tourist season is over, not even Linney can make Bill Dubuque’s dialogue come alive. Her character should be traumatised: before they left Chicago, the cartel, for reasons I do not completely understand, pushed her podgy lover – splat! – off his balcony. Instead, she’s fussing about the crotchety old guy’s sexism.

Ozark is overstuffed and tonally weird, so I won’t be binge-watching this one. This completes rather a bad run for me and Netflix; after the lame new series of House of Cards and the egregious Gypsy, this is the third of its shows on the trot to bore me rigid. Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

And now to The Sweet Makers: A Tudor Treat (19 July, 8pm), in which we hear the sound of the “living history” barrel being scraped so loudly, those attending the meeting at which it was commissioned must surely have worn ear defenders. Basically, this is a series in which four confectioners “go back in time” to discover how their forebears used sugar (first, the Tudors; next week, the Georgians).

What it means in practice is lots of Generation Game-style faffing with candied roses and coriander comfits by people in long skirts and silly hats – a hey-nonny-nonny fiesta of pointlessness that is itself a sugar coating for those nasty things called facts (ie a bit of tokenism about slavery and our ancestors’ trouble with their teeth).

Resident expert, food historian Dr Annie Gray, strained to give the proceedings urgency, sternly reminding the confectioners that the sugar house they’d spent hours building did not yet have a roof. But who cared if it didn’t? Destined to be eaten by fake Tudor guests at a fake Tudor banquet, it wasn’t as if anyone was going to lose their head for it – not even, alas, at Broadcasting House. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

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