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 Jane Plastow, that this was colonial theatre practice that is outdated and patronising and has no place in today’s theatre.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.