Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

The Black Actor Boom; Three Major Productions with a Black Lead Actor Are Playing to Packed Houses in London. the Days of Token Casting May Finally Be over, Says Nosheen Iqbal

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

The Black Actor Boom; Three Major Productions with a Black Lead Actor Are Playing to Packed Houses in London. the Days of Token Casting May Finally Be over, Says Nosheen Iqbal

Article excerpt

Byline: Nosheen Iqbal

FROM the South Bank to Upper Street, the heart of the West End to Sloane Square, a whiff of hope is drifting through theatreland. Talented black actors, so often sidelined or overlooked for star roles, are suddenly in demand on the London stage.

Following on from the recent success in the West End of an all-black Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, an unprecedented flush of shows with multi-ethnic casts is getting some of us excited. Three major productions featuring a black actor in the lead role have opened in the past few weeks -- Jesus Hopped the A Train at Trafalgar Studios, Ruined at the Almeida in Islington and Eurydice at the Young Vic. Some are sellouts and all are winning solid critical notices. Four more -- Sucker Punch at the Royal Court, Welcome to Thebes at the National, Sus, and Joe Turner's Come and Gone, both at the Young Vic -- all with predominantly black casts, open next month.

The past 18 months, certainly, have offered more high-profile stage roles to black actors than any time before. Actor David Harewood, 44, one of the mostwanted by casting directors, is understandably upbeat. "It's definitely an exciting time, most of the major theatres have broken through that dreadful period of just casting a single black actor in one semi-prominent role per play."

Harewood's recent performance as Martin Luther King in The Mountaintop, a period piece about civil-rights era America, helped that play scoop a shock victory over Enron and Jerusalem at the Olivier Awards earlier this year. Despite being odds-on favourites to win, British writers Lucy Prebble and Jez Butterworth were both forced to give way to Katori Hall, a 28-year-old African-American playwright whose triumph marked an optimistic turning point for black theatre.

In recent years, the trend has been for black British actors, unable to get a break at home, to relocate to Los Angeles to find success -- and a significant number have gone on to achieve it. "It's true. Too many talented black actors have had to move to America to enjoy the careers they deserve," says Harewood. "Idris Elba [of The Wire fame] couldn't have achieved what he has with Luther [the BBC's new series], until he became a superstar in the States."

So can the British industry reverse the trend? Harewood is hopeful. "The possibilities of theatre here, especially for young actors, show there is some future -- you're no longer held back by colour of your skin. " Harewood takes the lead in Welcome to Thebes, opening on June 15 at the National. Written by Moira Buffini and directed by Richard Eyre, it uses a primarily black cast to reimagine the ancient Greek myth of Eurydice. The Greek connection is proving popular.

Down the road at the Young Vic, American playwright Sarah Ruhl's reworking of the love story of Eurydice and Orpheus opened this month, also placing black actors centre-stage. Upand-coming Osi Okerafor (ex-boyfriend of singer VV Brown), who plays the lead, echoes Harewood's experience. "Casting across colour lines is beginning to happen more -- that's obviously true -- and it's far more in theatre than on TV."

"It's a great time. It's unusual, but it's been coming," agrees leading black British dramatist Roy Williams. His play, Sucker Punch, a boxing drama about being young and black in Eighties Britain, opens at the Royal Court on June 11. Williams believes that while non-traditional casting might be trickier when it comes to contemporary plays like his, with "historical plays, Shakespeare, you can do what you want. There are no rules".

It helps that a number of artistic directors at popular, publicly subsidised theatres -- David Lan at the Young Vic, Dominic Cooke at The Royal Court and Nicholas Kent at the Tricycle -- continue to support integrated casting. Lan, who over the past decade has consistently supported black British talent, believes that taking seriously "a responsibility to reflect London" (and its population of almost 40 per cent with non-white heritage) is the crucial factor that is driving change. …

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