Byline: ALEKS SIERZ
FOR years, the West End has been a no-go area for black British drama.
Black Americans yes, but not the home-grown variety. Now, suddenly, two shows arrive at the same time.
Kwame Kwei-Armah's Elmina's Kitchen opens tonight at the Garrick, and, next month, The Big Life sails into the Apollo Theatre.
For all their differences - Elmina's Kitchen is a hard-hitting drama about gun crime in Hackney's Murder Mile while The Big Life is a feelgood ska musical about West Indian migrants in the 1950s - both are courting a new black audience.
And it's a less reverent audience that brings with it a quite different theatrical experience. As anyone who has seen a show at the Theatre Royal Stratford East or the Tricycle, or a black play at the Royal Court, can attest, black audiences do flock to see plays by black writers and, unlike the traditional staid white audience, they often participate in the drama by calling out approval or objecting vocally.
Both these shows have been hyped as the first time that black Britons will see their lives portrayed on West End stages. This may be true in the narrow sense that the shows are the first to be staged in the heart of London, but it ignores the fact that black British playwriting has a long history.
Black writers have been penning plays since the 1930s, when CLR James's The Black Jacobins starred Paul Robeson, and in the 1950s, when Errol John's Moon on a Rainbow Shawl was a hit. Things really took off in the 1970s with writers such as Mustapha Matura, Michael Abbensetts and Alfred Fagon.
These plays were, however, staged at subsidised theatres and didn't have the make-or-break pressure of profit margins. Both Elmina's Kitchen and The Big Life have also been developed in the subsidised sector and so are not West End shows in a purely commercial sense. Even so, they need big audiences to survive. Will black Britons come and see them?
Elmina's Kitchen's selling point is its actor/writer. Known to millions of viewers as Casualty's Finlay Newton, Kwei-Armah also takes the lead in his play, which, when it originally opened at the National Theatre in 2003, won him the Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright.
"The reason I agreed to appear on stage now," he says, "is that it was suggested that, with me in it, we might break the glass ceiling of having a black British play in the West End." But can the play repeat its National success, when it filled the 300-seat Cottesloe space, in a commercial theatre that is double the size?
"It does worry me slightly," admits Kwei-Armah. "Or rather, that's the challenge." He says that when Elmina's Kitchen toured stateside to Baltimore, it filled a 700-seater with mixed black and white audiences for six weeks - "and they had never even heard of me - so we should be able to fill the Garrick".
In New York, he saw Denzel Washington in Julius Caesar play to huge mixed audiences. In fact, the Americans have a much better record of commercial black plays - Raisin in the Sun, recently revived in London, was billed as the first black play on Broadway. It premiered in 1958, but the first black Broadway play was Garland Anderson's Appearances in 1925.
Kwei-Armah says that "too few black people go to the theatre because - just like white workingclass people - they are disenfranchised. They think, 'Am I worthy enough?' and 'Is this my natural habitat?' The more plays that are put on about Caribbean or working-class people, the more those people will come. …