- Contemporary Black British Playwrights: Margins to Mainstream by Lynette Goddard
When Lynette Goddard’s Staging Black Feminisms appeared in 2007, black British theatre lacked a comprehensive scholarly survey. That gap has since been amply filled by studies published during the last five years, including Colin Chambers’s Black and Asian Theatre in Britain: A History (2011), Rodreguez King-Dorset’s Black British Theatre Pioneers (2014), and Goddard’s own coedited 2015 collection, Modern and Contemporary Black British Drama. Published alongside that collection, Goddard’s new monograph moves this scholarship forward by concentrating on the most recent generation of dramatists, including Roy Williams, Kwame Kwei-Armah, Bola Agbaje, and debbie tucker green. This book takes stock of black British theatre at a critical juncture, as it is produced increasingly in mainstream, white-managed venues. Responding to criticisms of the plays’ emphasis on scruffy urban youth, Goddard tackles sensitive issues of race, representation, and cooptation while mounting a spirited defense of this new writing’s aesthetic and social value.
Goddard’s chronicle begins with the meteoric rise of black British playwrights in the first decade of the 2000s, following the steady decline of dedicated black theatres during the 1990s. Eleven new works by black British playwrights were produced by mainstream theatres in 2003, suggesting a “cultural renaissance” was afoot (5). Like other scholars, Goddard notes that a significant catalyst in this process was the Stephen Lawrence murder case, which roused the political consciousness of a generation and galvanized state intervention (Goddard dedicates the book to Lawrence). The Macpherson Report of 1999, which found the Metropolitan Police Force to be “institutionally racist,” launched, like the Scarman Report after the Brixton riots in the early 1980s, a series of state-sponsored diversity initiatives, such as the 2002 Eclipse Theatre Conference and report, which mandated specific reforms designed to bring more black practitioners and audiences to mainstream theatres.
Goddard’s introduction considers at length whether institutionalized cultural diversity eventually “invigorates and empowers the mainstream” (10), compromising the autonomy and integrity of black artists by favoring plays that recycle corrosive stereotypes of black life. According to playwright Arinze Kene’s dispiriting assessment, “[w]e write what is expected of us, and often what’s expected is knife crime stories.” Journalist Lindsay John, too, scathingly denounces millennial black theatre’s “ghetto mentality” as “incoherent street babble and plots which revolve around the clichéd staples of hoodies, guns and drugs” (qtd. on 11–13). Goddard reports that despite initially sharing such concerns, research and analysis prompted a more nuanced, sympathetic understanding of millennial playwrights’ portrayal of youth culture and their commitment to social justice. This underlines the importance of such work for third-generation youths, especially those who are socially vulnerable in ways depicted by the plays. [End Page 695]
Supporting this approach, Goddard’s seven main chapters provide intensive readings of the plays, playwrights, and contexts. Two chapters examine Williams’s plays about youth violence and hyper-masculinity in sports, while the chapter on Kwei-Armah analyzes his emphasis on history and legacy in shaping black social and familial relations. Goddard’s chapter on Agbaje’s realist plays for teenage audiences addresses their cheerier representations of working-class Britons of West African origin. Two chapters on tucker green explore feminist politics and formal experimentation in her depiction of women’s responses to violence, both in the UK and internationally.
Together with a study of productions of these writers’ plays at Tricycle Theatre, these chapters survey a richly diverse range of themes: gender, sexuality, the traumas of violence, functional and dysfunctional families, youth culture, sports, AIDS, war, the legacies of slavery. An important aspect of the new writing is its shift from “African diasporic identity politics” of the 1980s toward the third-generation black British experience of a multicultural, cosmopolitan London: “their sense of identity and belonging, and determination to gain status and respect” (6, 25–26). Goddard usefully references other British work, such as “in-yer-face” theatres of the mid-1990s, suggesting that themes of violence or masculinity are hardly unique to black British...