Wednesday, 10 December 2014

A black man in the theatre - 'are you security?'

The prominent white British-South African actress Janet Suzman has waded into the debate on the lack of black and Asian people attending the theatre. Suzman's choice of language, reinforced in an article yesterday, has created quite a furore. Among other things she asserted that:
"Theatre is a white invention, a European invention, and white people go to it. It's in their DNA."
I’d prefer to give Suzman the benefit of the doubt here. She was asked about the lack of non-white audiences on the British theatre scene. Not surprising then that she claimed the theatre to be a white, European invention.

As for the invention of theatre in a worldwide perspective, I guess it depends on how you define theatre. I see it as an art form originating from the human urge to portray peoples and events by which internal, external, constructed and authentic realities and existences can be displayed and related to; portrayals carried out in various forms, including through improvisation, dance, games and rites. Based on such a definition, there are few if any cultures throughout history that haven’t had theatre at its cultural core.

So I give Suzman the benefit of the doubt there, she was specifically referring to western theatre. However, it’s hard to sympathize with her crude language when putting forward her views on black and Asian people with regards to their assumed cultural biology (DNA) and presumed financial standing where she stated that:
“going to the theatre is a pretty white way of spending an evening – and expensive." 
In conjunction, Suzman asserted that Shakespeare and Greek tragedies just weren't “in their [blacks and Asians] culture”, adding that unless a play has a black actor as leading man:
“going to a fringe theatre is not much on the black agenda”.
I’m a black man who relatively regularly visits the theatre. As a matter of fact, speaking of Greek tragedies, I attended Sophocles' "Electra" at the Old Vic last week. I am certainly not middle class but in London at least you can get hold of cheap tickets if you i.a. aren’t too fussy with the seating. The ticket to Electra cost me £10. Tickets to Shakespeare plays at the Globe go for similar sums if you’re prepared to stand. Same for many productions at Royal Opera House.

Janet Suzman, prominent anti-Apartheid campaigner, in a play last year in South Africa

However, although I think Suzman expresses herself unfortunately, she does have a point. Every time I’m at the theatre I scan (intensely) the audience for black people. It’s all highly unscientific, of course, but I think I speak with some authority as I’ve throughout the years gathered a considerable amount of observational ‘data’ to generalize from. In addition, apart from visiting the theatre on a relatively regular basis, I am an avid art gallery visitor.
Conclusion drawn from the empirical data? I am usually an aberration in these venues, standing out like a white runner in a 100m final (fact!). At the Electra play I saw just one other black person in the audience, and I should add that this production included one black actor and two mixed race actresses.
Hence, in theatres and galleries I seem to be the exception that proves the rule. The audience is almost totally white, although east Asians form a distinguishable additional cohort. Even when I visited Sudanese el-Salahi’s exhibit at Tate last year there were no black people. None, zero, zilch (admittedly, it was only one visit so there might’ve been many black people other days, but I doubt it).
Generally, the only other black presence in these cultural venues are members of staff – hence me once being asked in the British Museum if I was security.

So although Suzman expressed herself in quite rebarbative terms, it is true that black people seldom visit the theatre. A matter of fact that few question. And it’s not as if Suzman is averse to changing this non-diverse state of affairs. On the contrary. As she states, it is:
“quite apparent that work needs to be done at all levels to change this”.
Thus, credit to Suzman where credit's due. It’s only by highlighting this matter of fact that we can start to shed light on it and seek remedies. Further credit to her for trying to connect these dots and constructively offer remedial suggestions, including that:
“managements start to invest in Asian or black writers”
Hence, as Suzman petitions for more diversity and inclusivity in the western theatre world, she also produces a fine example of how bad choice of words can obscure a fundamentally good point.