Over on the Guardian’s theatre blog page today, there is this pile of hogwash. Of course it’s always interesting to hear reactions to theatre from those coming from a position of seemingly total ignorance, but on what possible grounds does Bidisha (the author goes by a one-name name, like, uh, Björk*) feel qualified to make the following, perplexing accusation:
“The danger is that the current spate of commissions is simply part of a trend picked up by the white men in power, in which non-white men are ‘in’ for the time being, while nothing really changes; the plays go on, but nobody heeds their message. The establishment must get behind those dramatists who are non-white and even (yuck) women, whose vision of society is the most penetrating and whose wisdom may save it.”
For a piece purporting to critique a “white” tendency to group all “blacks” together, that’s some pretty serious lumping together that Bidisha has undertaken (would it be cheap to wonder how White-Man-in-Power Nicholas Hytner, for example, would have fared in White-Man-in-Power Hitler’s Germany?). That she has hung it on the topical peg of Roy Williams' new play Joe Guy - which as a Tiata Fahodzi production is in no way a commission from a White Man in Power, unless Artistic Director Femi Elufowoju jr is a consummate illusionist par excellence - seems wrong-headed in the extreme. That it is co-produced with the Soho Theatre (artistic director Lisa Goldman) adds a further dimension of wrong-headedness to these accusations about who commissions what, and why. Tiata Fahodzi translates as Theatre of the Emancipated; it seems foolish at best to argue that the emancipated should go cap-in-hand to “The Establishment” (I’m sorry, the what?) and ask for their support. Surely the point in being emancipated is, well, precisely the opposite.
Similarly, doesn’t saying - “Parcelled up into various catch-all terms, the funniest of which is the meaningless 'ethnic', are dozens of countries, histories, cultural influences and artistic traditions. Any reference to white racism or discrimination is expressed in a spirit of sadness, not outrage.” - rather smack of, at best, hilarious hypocrisy and at worst, unconscious racism? Is “white” really any more meaningful a term than “ethnic”, taking in, as it does, dozens of countries, histories, cultural influences and artistic traditions? It is? Tell that to anyone who’s seen a No Poles or No Irish sign in a pub window.
Elsewhere she turns her attention to race + gender, arguing “the playwright Tanika Gupta, who has been producing exemplary work for years, is still not a household name. It is men who are being promoted.” Leaving aside the question of whether Sugar Mummies was really exemplary, I would suggest that Tanika Gupta is pretty much as much a household name as Roy Williams or Kwame Kwei-Armah. Or indeed David Eldridge, David Harrower, Marie Jones or Charlotte Jones. That is to say, well enough known in households where the names of reasonably successful modern playwrights are known at all. Bidisha is kidding herself if she thinks that even Sarah Kane or Mark Ravenhill will mean much to the disinterested user of the Clapham omnibus.
I’m not going to begin to open that can of worms that is: “the plays go on, but nobody heeds their message”. We’ve already established that Bidisha appears to have a somewhat oblique understanding of what theatre is/is for/does, so it seems foolish to waste time going over old ground regarding plays with “messages”, one of which, to its credit, Joe Guy isn’t, really.
Perhaps the oddest thing about the article, though, is the way that having opened by claiming that “whites” group “blacks” together, Bidisha then goes on to discuss "black" writing in much the same way. More worryingly, she appears to imply that writers of Caribbean/African/Indian/whereveran origin/ancestry are the only ones who should be tackling plays about their communities. What is interesting is that while I don’t think many liberal-minded people would mind if Roy Williams wrote a play with a largely white cast – hell, Sing Yer Heart Out... is precisely that – I suspect the same people would be much less interested in a white writer creating a play with mostly black characters. Indeed, after my Guardian blog on this subject, I got an email from a (white) writer friend who said: “I recently suggested [details cut to preserve anonymity] to [...] who are interested in commissioning me. [...] was great, ripe for dramatisation, and something I think I could write well. Only the story was about [...] black men. And that was the reason I was given for why the theatre didn’t feel it would be right to commission me. Not, 'We don't like the idea' or 'you're not good enough' but because I am white and middle class. Ironically, they then asked to commission [a black writer] for the same idea.” On the other hand, Stephen Jeffreys gained a great deal of praise for his play about American racial segregation and the blues I Just Dropped By to See the Man, which had a mostly black (sincere apologies to anyone genuinely offended by that generalisation) cast. Here’s hoping the attitude that informed the latter decision will ultimately prevail.
Writers need to be freed from precisely the sort of identity politics Bidisha promotes in order to be able to write about whatever they like. As Roy Williams does. Sure, if he’s interested by an issue concerning identity then he should make a play about it. There is also the ongoing concern to do with the form that such plays can take. As critic Carole Woddis noted in a comment to my piece: “The ‘80s and ‘90s saw a flowering of greater stylistic experimentation, Winsome Pinnock for one. Edgar White and Derek Walcott were just two earlier pre-eminent Caribbean writers whose styles embraced a whole range of embroideries - ritual, fantasy, dream - to explore various themes to do with ‘the mother country’.” It is vital that the doors to these options remain open. It is hard to imagine them doing so if: “The establishment must get behind those dramatists... whose vision of society is the most penetrating and whose wisdom may save it.”
Wouldn’t it be better if “the establishment”(!) just got behind those who wrote the best plays? Or indeed those who co-create the best works-for-theatre using non-traditional or experimental models of theatre-making?
* Edit: originally Jordan. See third comment.