December 10 2014
Renowned actor sparked anger when she declared theatre was a ‘white invention’ and black and Asian people weren’t interested – maybe – but why…
SHE SAID a ridiculous thing and has gone on to try to mollify the opprobrium it created with a letter that is published in the Guardian today (December 10).
Renowned actor and anti-apartheid activist Janet Suzman (pictured inset top left) controversially claimed theatre was a “European invention and white people go to it. It’s in their DNA. It starts with Shakespeare”.
After a furious backlash in the pages of The Guardian, led by Booker Prize winner Ben Okri and prominent TV writer Stephen Poliakoff, Suzman letter’s sought to clarify her position.
She said she was really referring to the “West End” or commercial London/British product”.
But continued to maintain that it is only white audiences that are largely drawn to the theatre, claiming it’s a “pretty white way of spending an evening – and expensive”.
She has a point – it’s true that the West End in the main does not draw a diverse audience but whose fault is that?
The Guardian also suggests that her views were based on the last play she appeared in in South Africa alongside a very fine black actor, but the production itself failed to attract a black audience.
In the British context, she has suggested investing more in Asian writers so that theatre companies can put on a wider array of work that may draw more diverse audiences.
That’s been happening for a bit, but largely with Asian theatre companies, which have made it their business to invest and nurture young writers and bring them to the professional stage.
Perhaps there is no better example of this than with Ayub Khan Din’s “East is East” (main picture), which is showing at the Trafalgar Studios in the West End until January 3, before going on tour.
Khan told www.asianculturevulture.com that he wrote it back in 1982 and only returned to it after Tamasha co-director Sudha Bhuchar encouraged him to do so quite a while later; Khan had shelved it, continuing to build on his acting career at the time. It was his debut play, and then a film and has now returned to its original format and has been popular.
Part of that success lays with the Trafalgar Transformed initiative – which seeks to attract ‘non-West End audiences’ to its productions by targeting particular groups and offering discounted seats. And price is an issue that affects all communities.
Many know that there is an Asian audience out there, keen to see stories it can relate to – and it is really what Meera Syal (pictured bottom left), who initiated this debate, was really talking about.
Currently appearing in “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” at the National Theatre, she told The Stage, that theatre companies were underestimating the power of the brown pound, and more Asians were going to the theatre and happy to spend money on culture and entertainment, (perhaps in contrast to an older generation, who had no such tradition or inclination and were keener to save and invest in the future).
As a culture site, intrinsically we know such an audience exists or at least continues to grow – of course reaching it is the challenge – but that’s our business, almost literally.
Suzman is right – that putting on a wider array of work will attract a more ethnically diverse audience.
It is one of the reasons why historically, you do not see many black or Asian faces in audiences at the West End – it just doesn’t appear relevant to many ethnic communities – more so when productions are completely white and don’t reflect contemporary Britain as it is.
Asian theatre companies have begun to change that and you could argue it has taken time but it is happening – perhaps still a little too slowly for many at the sharp end.
A company such as Rifco Arts, based at Watford Palace Theatre, could not exist or survive without the support of a local(ish) Asian community.
Its recent production, “Happy Birthday, Sunita” (starring Indian icon Shabana Azmi) drew strong audiences wherever it went (especially in traditional ‘Asian areas’).
In an important speech on Monday (December 10), Peter Bazalgette (pictured bottom right), Arts Council England (ACE) chair, said that diversity could no longer be something that arts companies tagged on at the end as an afterthought to attract potential grants or funding – it had to be at the heart of what they do.
He recognised there has been progress, but said for too long it had been shouldered by organisations such as Tamasha and Tara Arts (among the first), that were created primarily to nurture ethnic talent in front of and behind the stage.
All this is welcome, but the talk has to change to action and the important point is that diversity becomes central to the creative pulse of this country and reflects not only changing demographics, but the shifts within ‘mainstream’ British culture itself.
Even Sajid Javid (pictured top right), the current culture secretary and a Conservative, recognised the disparities between funding and ethnic participation and representation in the arts.
He told GG2’s Power101 this autumn: “BME (black and minority ethnic) taxpayers help support culture in just the same way as white taxpayers, but they’re much less likely to attend a performance or visit a gallery.
“And while 14 per cent of the UK’s population is non-white, BME applicants were awarded just 5.5 per cent of grants for the arts awards last year.”
There appears to be a convergence of views – and while Suzman has espoused a rather blinkered view, it has sought to highlight the continuing need and urgency for diversity and shows that things cannot stand still or improve marginally or superficially, because ACE isn’t going to let them. A good thing too.
And we definitely shouldn’t let them off the hook either – the majority of cultural producers who think we’re too dumb, stingy, or culturally deficient to appreciate their ethnocentrically ‘white works’.
Nobody wants tokenism or representation to be just about the numbers or proportions – if a production is good and you make an effort to reach all communities (sometimes still lacking in PR and marketing terms) not just traditional theatre-going ones, you’ve done as much as you can.
As a community, we also need to apply that pressure with our wallets – patronise those companies and productions that reflect modern Britain and shun those that continue to work as though the country hasn’t changed (since the 1950s) and act as though theatre, especially, is a just ‘white thing’, because only ‘they’ get it.
Sailesh Ram, editor www.asianculturevulture.com