Black Actors Hot on the London Stage

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.


black actor boom

Acting royalty: David Harewood was acclaimed for his portrayal of Martin Luther King in The Mountaintop


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 most-wanted 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.


black actor boom

Eurydice: Ony Uhiara and Osi Okerafor as Orpheus


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.


black actor boom

Ruined: Lucian Msamati and Jenny Jules in the Almeida production


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. Up-and-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”.


black actor boom

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: Sanaa Lathan and Adrian Lester were a sell-out


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.

“Casting is always based on the quality of performance and there are fantastic black actors out there,” he says. “This is partly because over the past 25 years there has been lots done to encourage, grow and develop that talent. The [theatre industry] must take that seriously. More work has to be put in because we still need to go much further.” He is talking about the need for change in the more commercially driven West End venues.


black actor boom

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone: Delroy Lindo and Nathaniel Martello-White


“You’ve got to look at mainstream theatres and what their priorities are. The bottom line in the West End is always the bottom line, and the audiences of those shows tend to be very white,” he says.

Lan has a point. Record-breaking success despite — or even because of — the prolonged recession meant that box office sales topped the half-billion pound mark for the first time ever last year, yet much of that theatre fever has arguably been down to revivals of safe old classics with conventional casting, and a handful of star names. “But when [the Novello theatre] did Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” says Lan, “it showed that [a black] audience for the West End is there. It’s true of any play that has relevance in the same way — if you put it on, people will come.”


black actor boom

Sus: Clint Dyer stars in the new film and stage revival of the play


It is a simple philosophy, and one he believes will ensure that the ones-to-watch on his list will establish long-term careers as actors and not just become part of a theatrical fling with multiculturalism.

Leading by example, Lan’s programme at the Young Vic this season includes Clint Dyer starring in a revival of Barrie Keeffe’s seminal 1979 play Sus, a savage drama about institutional racism within the police force before it was even officially recognised as a problem.

Lan also directs Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at the Young Vic, opening on June 5, a widely acknowledged masterpiece by the late August Wilson. It is the second in a 10-play cycle chronicling the journey of black Americans in the 20th century by the most revered of African American playwrights. Set in 1911, 50 years after slavery was abolished in the US, Joe Turner offers ample opportunity for promising new actors to earn their chops against three, heavily in demand homegrown talents: 57-year-old Hollywood screen star Delroy Lindo (who moved to the US in his teens), Adjoa Andoh, 47, and Danny Sapani, 39. Andoh, a stage regular who recently starred in Clint Eastwood‘s film Invictus, was recently described by one critic as “one of [Britain’s] most talented and unsung actors”; Sapani has just finished a run playing Danish fairytale writer Hans Christian Andersen at theHampstead Theatre.

But who else should we be keeping an eye on? Jenny Jules, currently leading the Almeida’s production of the Pulitzer-prize-winning drama Ruined, is making significant waves; her co-star, Michelle Asante, is another one to watch. The critically acclaimed play, which has been playing to full houses, is loosely based on Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children but the action has been deftly transported to late Nineties Congo, amid a brutal and savage war, where the rape of women and children is used as a weapon.

Pat Cumper, artistic director of Talawa, London’s oldest black theatre company, is keen to pay tribute to the pioneering success of three established stars — Adrian Lester (41), David Oyelowo (34) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (34) — London’s first black Hamlet, Shakespearean English king and Romeo respectively. The three have crossed over to prime-time television, and in the case of the latter two, banked a fortune working in America. So what about future talent?

“Supply will always outstrip demand,” says Cumper. “It’s a harsh business but young black men in particular can build reputations quicker because a lot of black’ drama at the moment focuses on young, black urban life.”

It’s not an unfair grouch. The experience the black British diaspora is obviously multifaceted, much like any other section of society, and far broader than the parameters of television and theatre scripts would often have us believe. As long as imaginative casting and confidence in the country’s black talent continues, however, it seems black British actors have everything to play for.

[via Nosheen Iqbal for ThisIsLondon]