Black Stories on stage
Two new programmes are putting the work of Black artists in the North of England centre stage
Black Men Walking is a play now touring the country’s theatres, wowing audiences and critics with its moving portrayal of a real walking group based in Sheffield. In one exhilarating hour and a half it “Dismantles stereotypes and proudly presents the complex identities of black British people”, according to one critic.
But the play would never have happened at all without ‘Revolution Mix’ a new funding stream aimed at challenging inequality in theatre, television, radio and digital media by creating a wealth of Black British stories, produced and performed in regional theatres. Those stories will come in the form of nine theatre plays, (Black Men Walking is the first), two short films and a series of radio plays, all under the aegis of Sheffield’s Eclipse theatre and its redoubtable artistic director Dawn Walton.
‘Revolution Mix’ is backed by a £100,000 award from The Esmée Fairbairn Foundation; an Exceptional Award of £249,141 from Arts Council England; £97,700 from the Heritage Lottery Fund in 2015 and smaller donations from the Fenton Arts Trust and Unity Theatre Trust.
Eclipse, which started life only eight years ago, is also one of the major forces behind behind Black artists gets under way with the Slate, a new funding strand which allows artists across the north to create and develop exciting new work with local arts organisations and an ‘enabler’, a specially selected Black arts professional. More than 1,200 Black artists in the North will benefit from the project over the next three years.
As part of the project, four artists each year will receive a commission, worth either £8,000 to transform an existing piece of work at development stage into a staged piece, or £4,000 to research and develop a brand-new idea.
The first four commissions are from Nwando Ebizie, a multidisciplinary artist living in Manchester; Naomi Sumner Chan, also from Manchester, who is a playwright, poet and theatre maker; Shanaz Gulzar, a digital artist from West Yorkshire, and Dorcas Sebuyange, a Liverpool-based creative artist.
“Nwando, Naomi, Shanaz and Dorcas have each proposed diverse and thought-provoking work that will encourage audiences to look at subjects differently and we’re incredibly proud that Slate is able to help them realise their potential.” says Dawn Walton.
Nwando Ebizie will bring to life ‘20 Minutes of Action’. a performance installation inspired by psycho-dramatic retellings of European and African folk tales and rituals. Incorporating an analogue electronic score, the performance draws on the artist's research into Haitian Vodou, vogue and ballet.
Naomi Sumner Chan will use the Slate funding to shape her new play ‘SAME SAME DIFFERENT’. Made in collaboration with adoptees and their families from all over the world, the play explores identity and belonging from the viewpoint of the adoptee, in particular transracial adoption.
Shanaz Gulzar’s commission will allow her to progress ‘Different from What We Are’; a virtual reality world that will use collected narratives to form an installation that asks viewers to step into another person’s shoes, experiencing their hopes and fears in a series of destabilising encounters.
Dorcas Sebuyange will develop her new work in progress; a visual representation of her musical collection, created using a range of different art forms including animations and motion graphics, filmography, poetry, visual art and movement, coming together as an immersive event for the audience.
Slate was conceived as a way of creating a network of support for Black artists not just in theatre, but in performance, dance and the visual arts, says Walton. “We could see a huge unmet need, particularly in the North. Independent Black artists had no resources or support to explore or experiment. I found it really heartbreaking to hear from so many who said that they had to go to London to find that resource.” Slate’s job will be to ‘find artists, keep the artists and attract artists back into the region.”
Crucial to the success of the programme is the work of the enablers, who will support Black artists in Slate to access training, commissions, residencies, retreats and a plethora of other opportunities to develop their work. “They are six brilliant individuals, professionals themselves who will be the next generation of black leadership in the arts,” says Walton. “They organise the workshops, meet-ups and mentor the artists and respond to their needs, so that they can develop their best work and that the very best work will reach an audience.”
A consortium of partner organisations including York Theatre Royal, Arc in Stockton, Manchester’s HOME, Pilot Theatre, Hull Truck, Oxford Playhouse, Liverpool’s Unity Theatre, Newcastle’s Live Theatre, East St Arts in Leeds as well as the British Council and Bradford City Council will also be involved. The Slate programme is overseen by a steering group of independent artists, producers and theatre companies. There will be two further rounds of commissioning in 2018 and 2019.
A new international programme will also be faciltated by Slate. “It’s important that this should not just be about local but also national and international links,” says Walton. Forced Entertainment is one of the organisations which will be leading this strand of the programme.
Slate is funded by an Arts Council England Sustained Theatre Award. Its one of five programmes backed by the award which is aimed at developing established and emerging Black and minority ethnic theatre makers and to increase the representation of Black and minority ethnic theatre makers across the wider theatre sector in England.
Other recipients include London’s Bush Theatre, Tamasha Theatre, Birmingham Rep in partnership with Talawa Theatre and Tiata Fahodzi.