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  1. Culture
  2. Theatre
10 May 2008

What’s happened to black theatre?

By Natasha Periyan

Missed opportunities

The UK-US divide between the exposure given to black artists has surfaced in the blogosphere this week. Bonnie Greer noted on Comment is Free that the days when “black people acted, directed and wrote plays” were “gone with the wind”. After coming to the UK twenty-two years ago to join a “thriving” and representative theatre scene, she concludes that this has all but disappeared.

David Harewood, in response to Greer, agreed. He noted that whilst black actors are “thriving in America”, in the UK “we seem to have been airbrushed out of existence, out of history”. He cites the example of the attempt to drum up publicity for Underexposed, a collection of portraits of 30 successful black actors at the National Portrait Gallery. Harewood notes, with regret, that the only significant media request received were for LA based actors.

Kwame Kwei Armah noted the greater opportunities for black actors in the US in the NS last October, and the “two-tier system in our television and film industries”. He concluded that he was certain that “our mothers and fathers got on the right boat – the one that brought them to these shores” but the lack of UK based black actors made him wonder, however, “what will become of black narratives?” And the UK stage and screen are not the only arenas that have failed to support, and expose black talent. As noted in a recent NS radio review, the London-born singer Estelle only found chart success after decamping to New York.

Opera gets ‘hip’

The reinvigoration of opera continues apace this week. The Canadian Opera Company staged Hip Hopera on Wednesday, a fusion of rap and opera that explores the challenges faced by an interracial couple. Whilst the ENO has focused on using the influence of film and theatre to appeal to a new audience, Canada appears to be using music to broaden opera’s appeal. Rap has been taking on stories of epic proportions for some time now. R Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet is a 22-chapter saga of infidelity, lust and midgets. In 2001, Beyonce starred in a television movie, Carmen: A Hip Hopera.

Is the UK so behind in this rap-opera melting pot, however? John Karastamatis, of Toronto-based Mirvish productions, argues: “what we think of as opera right now is a historical piece of musical theatre…what used to be called opera are now called musicals”. On this basis, we have our own slice of hip-hopera in the guise of Into The Hoods, out now in the West End, which trades on a musical, rather than operatic label. It’s all clearly a question of semantics.

And Finally…

It’s been a bad week for Morgan Spurlock. His new film Where In the World is Osama Bin Laden? has attracted almost uniformly bad reviews. In the NS Ryan Gilbey argued that the film should earn Spurlock a job as a BBC foreign correspondent – “on the CBeebies channel”, while the Washington Post dismissed it as “the lamest documentary” of the year. In other news, Sotheby’s announced the auction of Andre Breton’s 1924 Surrealist Manifesto in Paris at the end of the month. According to Breton, “the marvellous is always beautiful, anything marvellous is beautiful, in fact only the marvellous is beautiful”. Unfortunately for Spurlock, his new film can lay claim to neither.

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