Saturday, 23 April 2016

White Directors and African Theatre

Yesterday I was sitting in the audience in a lecture theatre at The Globe when my name appeared on the screen together with a photograph of a show I directed in 2003. This was not a good thing – my show was being used, alongside Greg Doran’s  Julius Caesar for the RSC  and Dominic Dromgoole’s Hamlet for The Globe, as an example of white directors dabbling in ‘African’ theatre. It was overtly stated by the presenter, Prof. Jane Plastow, that this was colonial theatre practice that is outdated and patronising and has no place in today’s theatre.

While I was surprised to be in such illustrious company, I was astonished that Prof. Plastow put my production alongside those others. I will come to exactly why later on, but for now, I’d like to look at this idea that white people can’t (or shouldn’t) direct black theatre.

I realise that there is discussion to be had here and that there is an under-representation of anyone non-white, non-male and non-Oxbridge in theatre. I really hope that this is changing, although way too slowly, but I do baulk at being tarred with the same brush as other directors who use Africa as a backdrop to their productions. This is not what I do.

In 2012 Michael Walling (another white director working interculturally) wrote about this issue in his blog (link to the blog below).

He addresses the opinion which had been expressed that the position of power in the majority of ‘intercultural’ productions tends to be held by ‘the white person with the money’, and that this perpetuates a colonial relationship between Europe and its former colonies.

"It's an issue I have faced before - though always from white middle-class intellectuals, and usually in relation to my directing 'black work' in the UK. From the point of view of Border Crossings, my answer is always that we don't do 'black work', but that we create theatre which deals with the fact that different cultures now inhabit the same spaces, globally and at more local levels, and that somehow we need to negotiate ways of living together. We won't achieve that by separatism. 

Walling goes on to say:

"It's crazy in a globalised world, to say that only black people can talk about Africa or Chinese people talk about China. We have to have dialogues - and to discriminate as to who can take part in them on the basis of colour will prevent artists of integrity from working together. And that is dangerous. Because the world needs what they can make in collaboration - something much bigger than they could make alone."

This is a pretty much perfect description of the work that we intercultural practitioners aim to do, and yes, I do put Bilimankhwe in that category. We do not present 'black theatre', we collaborate with international artists. 

The Globe’s Hamlet has just completed a two-year world tour. It was created in London, by a British team and only one of the 12-strong cast (Rawiri Paratene, from New Zealand) can be described as non-British.  One of the Hamlets, Ladi Emeruwa, came to the UK from Nigeria when he was 10 to attend boarding school, and Jennifer Leong came from Hong Kong, also for boarding school, at 16. Even with these inclusions the claim that I heard the other day that this is a multi-cultural cast cannot be supported. The cast is from a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds, but in fact they are almost all British. So this is a British production, through and through.

Greg Doran’s Julius Caesar is another case in point. Out of a cast of 20, only one (Jude Owusu, who lived in Nigeria until he was 7) could be described as African. 3 were from the West Indies. It was a play set in Africa – this was a design choice, a directorial idea rather than an intercultural production.

Both the Globe’s Hamlet and the RSC’s Julius Caesar were excellent productions; I saw them both.  So why was I upset to be set alongside them?  What makes what I do different from their work?

I lived and worked in Malawi for several years, setting up a fully-professional Malawian Theatre Company, Nanzikambe, in 2003. All of the performers, actors, musicians and dancers were Malawian. Hamlet was our first production, which was created in Blantyre, Malawi and toured nationally within Malawi.

We were then commissioned to make a production of Macbeth. Again this was a fully Malawian cast and crew, with local pop stars Ben Michael Mankhamba, Sally Nyundo and Sam Katimba as the witches and Ben’s band The Zigzaggers playing original music throughout. This toured Malawi and Zimbabwe.

In both cases, we decided to put ‘African’ in the title (which I understand was what Jane Plastow took issue with). The company all felt that we should do this, so that when we toured, potential audiences would know that this was not a European classic performed by white folk coming to show them how it’s done – this was both set in Africa and performed by Africans (it was the company’s choice to identify as Africans rather than as Malawians).

It worked. Every venue was full to bursting, and audiences were more than 95% Malawians.

Compare this to when the Globe came to Blantyre, with their European production. The audience was 90% British expatriates. 

What I do is intercultural theatre. Since my time in Malawi I have continued to work with partners in Malawi. In 2012 I went there to develop an adaptation of Jack Mapanje’s And Crocodiles Are Hungry At Night, which opened in Nanzikambe’s Theatre Space, again to a house packed with Malawians (I don’t remember any white people in the audience that night).

I then brought the company – again all Malawian performers – to the UK where the show opened in Stratford-on-Avon and continued for a three week run at The Africa Centre in London. This was as close as I have come to directing a purely Malawian show in the UK; I did not tour any of my other productions outside of Africa, so they were created purely with an East African audience in mind.

I am now working on an intercultural production of The Tempest, which will (if we get sufficient funding) be performed both in the UK and in Malawi. The company will be drawn from British, Zambian and Malawian actors and the script will be bi-lingual English and Chichewa. I will be directing, working alongside a Zimbabwean choreographer and collaborating closely with the intercultural cast.

The same year that I was touring African Macbeth around Malawi and to Zimbabwe, Max Stafford-Clark’s Out of Joint presented a Macbeth set in Africa. It had a British cast, and he had the chutzpah to actually tour it in Africa as part of a world tour. I don’t know how it went down in Ghana, but it was reviewed extremely positively in London. It was very good … but it wasn’t African, it was inspired by African politics. So why was my work seen as ‘colonial’ and not Stafford-Clark’s?

Having my integrity and credibility questioned in a public forum is potentially very damaging to my reputation. I realise that this response is unlikely fully to undo the damage, but I do hope it may limit it. 

I am very much looking forward to continuing to build my reputation by putting my money where my mouth is in my next production, and I will stand or fall by its quality and integrity. Watch this space.


Monday, 19 October 2015

Bilimankhwe visit the Afrovibes Festival in Amsterdam

Kate Stafford on a visit she and Amy Bonsall had to the Afrovibes Festival 

Amsterdam, early October 2015.

We are sitting in the upstairs room of a lovely theatre, the Compagnietheater. Everywhere the Afrovibes Festival roars around us - in the few days we have been here we have been in a maelstrom of intercultural performance. We have seen high energy, urban dance, Afrikaans/English rap; verbatim theatre documenting South Africa’s recent upsurge in xenophobic violence and some wonderful clowning. There are visual art exhibitions, performances in English, Dutch and Xhosa and lively discussions with artists from hugely diverse backgrounds.

But now we are meeting with the organisers of this festival, to talk about bringing our production of Brothers in Blood to Afrovibes 2016. And the opening remarks? “I saw a pitch for this play in South Africa some time ago. I didn’t like it”.

Oh dear. But I am hear to report, gentle reader, that by the end of the meeting we are pretty much agreed - the Bilimankhwe-UK Arts co-production of Brothers in Blood by Mike Van Graan, directed by Amy Bonsall, will be performed in Amsterdam next Autumn. Our show will be current, exciting, dynamic and explosive and we managed to blow away the memories of whoever that other company was that pitched the play so badly!

London, mid October 2015

So back in London the work begins. We must put together the UK tour, apply for funding and do all the other production work in order to make this happen. I am sitting at my computer procrastinating when a notification pings. Brett Bailey has sent an update from Rio:

‘Shit hit the fan last night here in Rio, when a debate around Exhibit B and associated issues was taken over by shouting, furious members of the audience. no debate. no discussion. A huge amount of anger and frustration and absolute fed-upness with the injustice dealt to black society in this country which saw the import of 4.9 million slaves, in which racial inequality is rivaled only by South Africa, in which police brutality towards black people gets scant notice, and around 77% of the victims of all homicides are black youths. All this got focused on me and the festival which intends to host the work next year. Again I'm a racist motherfucker.

I gotta really weigh up, even if the relevant festivals decide to go ahead and run the work, whether I have the energy and will to enter that kind of maelstrom again. perhaps its just not my battle.'

As regular readers of this blog will know, I saw Exhibit B in Paris last year, and think it is an extraordinary work of extreme power. I would be sad to see it cancelled again - but let me post this response from Ismail Mohamed, the Artistic Director of the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, South Africa, as he says it so much more eloquently than I can:

'As the Artistic Director of the National Arts Festival I engaged with the proposal for this production for a long while when it landed on my desk. My initial response to the proposal was hugely negative. I engaged privately for long hours about how a White artist would be appropriating history and pain of the "other". I was concerned that the work would make an exotic museum piece of the "other". I thought of almost every single reason that has been presented by those who are determined to prevent the work from being staged. After days of contemplation, I decided that despite all my concerns the work needed to be staged. I knew that it would evoke pain. I knew that it would stir guilt. I was prepared for any anger that it might unleash. When it was staged it did evoke all those emotions and much more. It made White audiences feel guilt, remorse and even anger for the pain, humiliation and destruction that their forefathers brought to Africa. It gave White audiences an opportunity to cry and to look at the first "other" person they saw in that "theatre" with a deep sense of humility. The work gave Black audiences a spiritual connection with their past and an opportunity to feel affirmed that the struggle is still far from over. There were audiences who also hated the work; and they had every right to do so. The purpose of presenting good art is not to make the artist feel loved. It is to push the artist out there from our comfort zones and to stir us from our inertia. To unearth those bottled emotions. To play havoc with our minds. To push us into those dark spaces that we hope will get forgotten. To let us walk on our own way and to inspire us with the energy to triumphantly celebrate the human spirit. To leave us for days on end pondering, questioning, confused and arguing with ourselves, the artist and the art. EXHIBIT B did all of that in Grahamstown. For that reason alone I would stage the work again and again and again.'

To which Brett replied: “thanks, Ismail”. Yes, thanks Ismail, for standing up against the shouting and furious rage, and expressing what many of us feel. 

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Romeo and Juliet: the first Chichewa translation

Support the first ever translation of Romeo and Juliet for Malawian audiences

Exciting news! Our Associate Director Amy Bonsall is going to be collaborating with Malawian writer Stanley Onjezani Kenani to create a Chichewa translation of Romeo and Juliet and tour it around Malawi!

Please help us to make this exciting project happen, either by donating here, or by helping us to spread the word about our campaign.

· You will be helping to fund the first ever production of a poetic translation of Romeo and Juliet into Chichewa.

· You will be supporting the best of Malawi's actors and graduate actors.

· You will be giving hundreds of Malawians (many of whom do not speak English) the opportunity to see Romeo and Juliet in their own language.

· Thousands of students will have online access to a poetic translation of one of Shakespeare's great plays in their own language.

About the project

Shakespeare has been popular in Malawi for over 100 years and his plays are widely studied, Romeo and Juliet being the current curriculum text. However, with English as a second language, many students find Shakespeare hard to understand and enjoy. Bilimankhwe Arts has engaged Caine Prize nominated Malawian writer, Stanley Onjezani Kenani to produce a poetic translation of Romeo and Juliet to be performed at Chancellor College in Malawi in April 2016.

The production will have a Malawian cast, drawing from the very best of Malawi's professional actors and students from Chancellor College's Performing Arts Department. It will be directed by international theatre director Amy Bonsall with a Malawian assistant director. Students in Malawi currently only have access to English versions of Romeo and Juliet and this is an amazing opportunity to give them a translation in Chichewa, the most widely spoken language in Malawi. The educational impact of this is huge and teachers, students, academics, theatre practitioners and artists throughout Malawi overwhelmingly support this project. The British Council in Malawi has pledged to support the project by making the text available online. This really is an opportunity for you to support the making of theatre history.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

July 2015 news

Leah Moyo is currently in the air on her way to Grahamstown for the National Arts Festival. She will be blogging about it soon ... This is a great partnership as she is accompanying Jan Ryan from UK Arts International and representing both Bilimankhwe and Black Theatre Live. She is looking for two things: plays to present as rehearsed readings at Afrovibes 2016 and actors for our production of Brothers in Blood which will be touring with Afrovibes, with a cast drawn from both South Africa and the UK. can't wait to hear more ...

In other news, Amy Bonsall has just completed a two week R&D for Romeo and Juliet - the first draft of the Chichewa translation is complete and she worked Professor Mufunanje Magalasi's students at Chancellor College. Again, watch this space for more details.

Work on The Tempest is also continuing. With a new partner on board, the York International Shakespeare Festival, the plan is to go out for our R&D in 2016.

So there's a lot in development for a very busy time in the coming year.  If you've discovered our blog but not yet signed up on our mailing list, please do ... The link is here:!contact/cvrh

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

2015 and beyond

Welcome to new Associate Artist Leah Moyo

Back in the autumn it became clear that we had put together an amazing team for our rehearsed readings at Afrovibes. Travelling to 5 cities performing staged readings of two plays with extremely limited rehearsal time concentrated the mind wonderfully. One of our actresses, Leah Moyo, stood out as a committed, talented, intelligent artist and we are very, very pleased to be able to announce that she has joined Bilimankhwe as Associate Artist.

Leah graduated last year from The Drama Studio following a career change; she moved out of International Development into Theatre. She was born in Zambia and speaks both chitumbuka and chichewa (Nyanja), two of the main bantu languages spoken in Malawi so is the perfect fit for us. Amy, George and Kate couldn't be more delighted to have her on our team.

Three Shows in Development

This year is going to be a busy one, as we have 3 plays in development for production in 2016 and 2017. 

Brothers in Blood

After a very successful tour of the Mike Van Graan play readings at Afrovibes, we are working with Jan Ryan of UK Arts International to produce a tour of Brothers in Blood as the audience response to the readings was so positive. The play investigates frictions and relationships between Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities in South Africa; with the recent events in Paris and the Jewish Community in London now shockingly saying they don't feel safe here it seems the perfect time to re-visit this award-winning play. 

Shakespeare - The Tempest and Romeo & Juliet

The other two projects being developed at the moment are an inter-cultural production of The Tempest which will tour Malawi and the UK, and a chichewa language version of Romeo and Juliet, developed in association with the Universities of Malawi and Leeds. 

Throughout June our two Artistic Directors, designer Hazel Albarn and actress Leah Moyo will be in Malawi working on the R&D phase of both Shakespeares; Amy will be in Zomba at the University working with Professor Mufunanje Magalasi and the students there on Romeo and Juliet, and Kate, Hazel and Leah will be in Blantyre working with the artists of Nanzikambe, our partners.

The Globe in Africa

As well as all that, Amy and Kate will be in Malawi at Easter for the Globe-to-Globe touring production of Hamlet. Nanzikambe are hosting the show which gets to Malawi on 8 April.  For more information about the Globe production have a look at the Globe-to-Globe website.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

and more on Exhibit B ...

Now that we've had our say ... this was written by theatre director Nadia Latif:

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Exhibit B

Kate Stafford writes:

Last night I had tickets for the opening night of Brett Bailey's installation EXHIBIT B at the Barbican. Only I didn't see it, because it was closed down by a reportedly violent mob of protesters, due to concerns that the safety of both audience and performers could not be guaranteed. I feel ashamed to be living in a country where this could happen. After engaging with some of the protesters on twitter, it became clear that this issue had become polarised, not least because the argument was being conducted in bite-sized chunks, 140 characters long.

And of course the argument is largely between people who support it - but haven't seen it, and people who oppose it - but haven't seen it.

When (Associate Artistic Director) Amy Bonsall was up in Edinburgh this year, she did see it. And I have seen Brett Bailey's work in South Africa. We are also white and working in African theatre, as is Brett Bailey. So it occurred to us that we may actually have something to add to the discussion.

So last night we started a conversation, which I am reproducing here. At the end I have added some links to further opinions, reviews and discussion pieces.

Firstly I asked Amy for her response to the show. This is what she wrote, off the top of her head, late at night:

Exhibit B.

I am a White woman. I am a middle class white woman. I am a dyslexic middle class white woman. I am a mother. I am a wife. I have knowledge of some things I have no knowledge of others.

I was born in Scotland, I have spent most of my life in England. I work in Theatre. I work in Theatre that prejudices Southern and Eastern African work. And Shakespeare.

I say all of that because context is both essential and irrelevant.

I saw Exhibit B at the Edinburgh Festival. I saw it because Jan Ryan of UK Arts International who produced it knew that I wanted to see it and she made sure that I was able to. I don't know Brett Bailey and nor have I seen any of his other work. I had seen some controversy about it, about the way the work was presented on the Scotnites forum. But had only seen this in fragments.

I sat downstairs waiting for my number to be called. I didn't hear all the instructions and so felt ill at ease, that I was going to mess up the piece for everyone else by getting it wrong. My number was called and up the stairs I went. Formal and silent, directed by solemn ushers as to where to go. The first performance is that of 2 people, naked from the waist up. Their vital statistics in a book, open - a live re-creating of the appalling practice of treating human beings as possessions, to use, to trade.

I felt ashamed. I felt ashamed to be white.

I made myself read each and every statistic and to look at each body part so as to treat that person as a person and not glide over them as though they were an object. And it was uncomfortable, and challenging and I felt ashamed.

I tried to do the same at each other 'exhibit'? see, that seems wrong because they are performances, they are directed performances and the people volunteering are actors. They may not be professional actors, they are volunteers, but they are actors in the context that they are performing of their own free will. And each 'performance/exhibit' has a story and has characters. Each of the stories is factually correct, and is horrifying. 

Some of the stories I had heard of, and some I had not, I guess it was about a 50/50 split between the two. The depiction of stories from modern times back through hundreds of years of colonial barbarity illustrated how appalling humans are to each other. How appalling some white people were and are to people of colour and black people, and people of other races, sexes and it made me feel sick. It made me feel like I could not nor should not look. It made me feel ignorant, it made me feel that dialogue is essential. It clearly illustrated how racism is alive and happening, and though I was aware of this before, the performances presented stats and figures in a visceral and horrendous way. And not only stats and figures, of the experiences of people I know and people who I have heard about. It was all there, in that room and it was inescapable and I felt culpable. 

My family were working in mills for a pittance at the turn of the century. So who was responsible. And we know who was. It made me think even more clearly about what we do about it, how so so much more must be done. What is my responsibility in that? The white marble heads looking down over the scenes they could be indirectly responsible for was disturbing.

The conversation between Amy and I continued into the night:

KS: I have been reading some articles and reviews written in response to the work, in South Africa and Europe. Everywhere the reviews have been extraordinary. It seems that this work opens up a painful wound, forcing us to look again at our attitudes and how society treats race. So I am incredibly sad that although I had tickets, I was unable to see this work, to be challenged by it and experience it. I think that there is a real misunderstanding by many people of what it is really about: there has been a hysteria around the assumption that because Brett Bailey is a white South African, then his work is inherently racist. As I say, I haven't seen this. But I have seen another of his plays.

I saw iMumbo Jumbo in a township in the outskirts of Grahamstown back in (I think) 2004. It was challenging, aggressively anti-colonial and scary. As a white person in a largely black audience in a black township (they bussed the audience in) I felt insecure, and the rage of the people who had lived under apartheid was palpable.

Anyone calling Brett Bailey racist is seriously misunderstanding where he is coming from, and refusing to listen to what he has to say.

AB: The reason why I am so angry about this is because in the UK we have freedom of speech, we do not have censorship, And that is were I start from. Freedom of speech is not, as has been suggested to me time and time again about this a wishy washy neo liberal construct. it is absolutely essential in preventing this terror happening again, and indeed in highlighting it when it is happening now. because it is happening now.

KS: To stop his voice, his expression, is a dreadful thing to do. I truly believe that people want to shut him up because of the colour of his skin. Which is ironic, really, don't you think?

AB: Many of the reactions against Exhibit B seem to be against the lack of diversity at the Barbican in its management structure and programming and community engagement and ACE and the same charges. And I would agree with all of those. But that is not the fault of this piece.

And so so many are basing their opinions of the piece on what they have read in the media and on petitions. They have not seen it. And that is absolutely their right , but they do not have the right to stop a performance. That is censorship. It goes against everything an equal and free society should be.

KS: It's a shame that when one of our national cultural institutions do finally showcase work addressing race, colonialism and our attitudes to immigrants, the popular media manage to somehow turn it on it's head, and call it racist.

AB: I can not agree with statements that imply that black people can only work on black art and white people on white. that is offensive to all, and the world does not work like that.

KS: All of us can only respond truthfully to our own experience. Whatever our background, race or culture. And another irony is that having read a lot about the piece, I'm fairly sure I would have hated it. I read a blog by Selina Thompson who saw the piece, absolutely hated it, and I think I may well have had a similar reaction. But of course the opportunity is now not there for me.

AB: She has seen it, and while I have a different experience and opinion from her, we both have the right in a democracy and country of free speech to pay our money if we wish and to see it.

KS: I just wish that people would see the work, and then respond. the woman that started the petition talked about how she couldn't take her 12 year old daughter to see such terrible depictions of black people. Well of course she couldn't! That would be entirely inappropriate, because a child would not be able to understand the context, what the artist is saying.

AB: I have not said it isn't racist. I have never been able to get that far in discussing it because the argument has overwhelmingly focused on a white man directing black actors. Many have accused the Director of being self indulgent. Can you not throw that at every single artist who shares their art with an audience? If he had no cast there would be no play - if there was no audience there would be no play.

The day before EXHIBIT B was closed down, Brett Bailey released a statement. The closing sentence was:

"Do any of us really want to live in a society in which expression is suppressed, banned, silenced, denied a platform? If my work is shut down today, whose will be closed down tomorrow?"

Lee Jasper: Barbican shut down Bailey's offensive 'Human Zoo'
Selina Thompson's blog
article in The Guardian