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Racial Diversity in the Arts | The British Council

With the recent departure of Emma Rice from the Globe theatre, many people have been left questioning why so much theatre is taking huge leaps forward, yet the Globe appear to be taking unnecessary steps back.

At the British Council’s screening of Talawa Theatre Company’s King Lear starring Don Warrington, they followed the screening with a panel discussion on racial diversity in the arts. Chaired by Shreela Ghosh, Senior Advisor of Culture and Development Arts at the British Council, she discussed the issue of racial diversity in the arts with renowned actor Don Warrington, Artistic Director of Talawa Theatre Company Michael Buffong, young actress that recently starred in Emma Rice’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, Anjana Vasan and Professor in English at Warwick university Tony Howard.

After being founded in 1986, Talawa Theatre Company are a black British company that produce moving and commanding productions. Michael Buffong directed the production of King Lear and with it being Shakespeare 400, he talked about why he chose that particular play: “With the classics there is a lot more room for interpretation, there are a myriad of ways of doing lear. It ticked lots of things I wanted to do and explore, such as black presidence in England.”

With a multitude of Shakespeare plays popping up around the country, particularly this year, the highly popular african adaptation of Hamlet by the RSC sprung to mind. I distinctly remember myself seeing that production and being wowed by the spectacle, which led me to naively going into Michael’s production of King Lear and wondering what the visionary adaptation might be.

It didn’t take me long to realise that the spectacle itself was the impeccable acting and the intensity of the actors’ stage presence. I explained this to Michael and he responded: “You’re right, people always think there is going to be ‘a thing,’ what is the thing? I’d say, ‘what are you talking about.’

If you said there is going to be a new version of king lear at the RSC, I don’t go ‘well what is the thing’. But with a black production of a classic, there is always an idea that there has to be a thing.” Whilst racial equality has improved, it is still a major issue in the arts.

Don Warrington began his career in the popular TV show Rising Damp.

I had a wonderful start, my first professional job was Rising Damp, which was an extraordinary production that gave me a name. Yet it also came with its problems, as the first thing you do tends to define you. Rising Damp defined me as this rather posh character and that meant that from then on I felt that what I had to do was to go into the theatre to try and play other roles.

That was difficult because when I first started we did rep, which is where actors went off and learnt their craft, I couldn’t do that because there weren’t enough parts for me. So I just had to do it where and when they were coming along. So my career was stop start, and I think when I was young other black actors found it just as difficult.”

“My career is a rag bag of dross and glitter,” Don stated.

Although Don has gone on to have an extensive career, he struggled along the way and this is still an issue for working actors today.

Anjana said: “I represent the young working actor trying to get through the door.” She thinks that despite the changes that have been made to make an effort with racial diversity, it still poses problems. “Even in colourblind casting, just on Shakespeare alone, you say colourblind casting but there is still a lot of always explaining away your race by giving you characters that lack urgency, are largely silent, or are secondary characters,” she added.

“Or it is having to make sense of when you’re on stage, so even the characters I have played in Shakespeare are characters that tend to be characters that people have given permission for people of colour to play, like Hermia because of references to her dark skin, or like the witches in Macbeth.

“There isn’t that much permission given to people of colour to break that mould as much, or transcend that. There should be a faith in your potential and ability that you perform more than your race on stage”

This brought up the discussion of Emma Rice, the artistic director of the Globe who will be stepping down. Emma Rice broke boundaries in regards to both Shakespeare and the arts, in terms of moving theatre forward and bringing it to new audiences.

Michael believes the rooted issue in the lack of racial diversity is the people that hold the power in these theatres. The people right at the top of the chain who are ultimately making the decisions, because the lack of diversity at the top is being reflected on stage.

“It is about who is making theatre, who has the power. It is interesting the whole Emma Rice thing, she has done fantastically in opening up who is on that stage and the people that have come to see it,” Michael commented.

Anjana felt quite passionately about her departure, after working with her on Midsummer Night’s Dream: “She is a great asset to actors and a great asset to diversity, so on that reason alone I think it is a great loss. I just hope that whoever takes it on can understand that what she did was take a huge step forward, it wasn’t just baby steps.

I think it is a damn shame that she is leaving, I think at the forefront of her vision this year and for the future she put diversity first. I’m not saying that the globe never had diversity before, I am saying that she did it in a way that was really exciting to audiences and she spoke about gender parity and almost instantly reached that target of 50/50. I think it is a huge step backwards in terms of diversity.”

The audience themselves responded in agreeance and it was safe to say everyone felt shocked and disheartened by her departure. However it was Don Warrington’s frank final words on the matter that resonated with us all.

“It’s ridiculous,” he said. “It is heritage theatre.”

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