You read My Black History, a series of personal reflections of black women in the UK on the meeting point of history and life lessons.
I was six years old when I saw my first play – a pantomime version of Cinderella. Feeling the stage live through performance and music was an emotion, even at that young age. I joined every theater and music club in the school and went on every theatrical trip. And I even started thinking about a career in music theater.
This love of theater is genetic, I think – my late father was a huge fan of the arts. He was president of the drama club at university and traveled all the way to London from Kenya to watch Miss Saigon. My sister inherited the theatrical bug, playing Annie at the age of 10 and taking performers in school until the sixth grade. It was only natural for me to follow in their footsteps.
But as I got older, my dreams of performing in the West End began to feel unrealistic for a Black girl from Dagenham. Most of the shows I saw had an all-white cast. Black performers only seemed to get the lead roles in shows like The Lion King and Dream Girls. As my West End dreams began to fade, my love for theater grew – and became a hobby that became even more joyful due to the rise of Black shows and Black stories in the British theatrical world.
One play that really stands out to me is Tree, which I saw, pre-pandemic, at the Young Vic in 2019. Before the show started, it felt like a packed club. A DJ played Dancehall and Afrobeats, while the cast and audience danced on stage. The story, which is based on an album by Idris Elba, began in London but quickly moved to South Africa, following a boy named Kaelo after a family tragedy. Seats for the show were limited so we stood for most of it, but I barely realized I was so involved. Moments like this highlight for me that Black theater can challenge how traditional theater should look and feel.
Around the same time, I managed to get tickets for the most talked about musical in town. I had no idea what Hamilton was, I just knew I needed to be there and as soon as I heard the first song, I was hooked. Although Hamilton is not a Black story in itself, seeing black actors in lead roles in the Victoria Palace theater was a powerful reminder of why I fell in love with the arts. Hamilton highlights how theater can tell a story in such a touching way. It shows the spheres of possibilities that can be explored on stage.
When, almost two years later, I was finally able to see a play again, it was like returning home. Is God at the Royal Court, which I saw last month, focuses on two young African Americans in search of finding their father. Writer Aleshea Harris deals with difficult issues such as domestic abuse and neglect, but finds humor in the struggle. For the most part, though, it was refreshing to get back into theater and see people who looked like me on stage and in the audience.
That’s why I find so much joy in Rendition. This online center for all Black theater across the UK was founded by Shope Delano, a 26-year-old digital project manager from Hertfordshire. It has been running for two years now, sharing guides and reviews on Black shows playing across the country.
Like mine, Delano’s passion was ignited at a young age when her mother used to take her and her sister to a theater in London. The family had an annual tradition of going to the Hackney Empire pant during the Christmas period. This festive extravaganza is a legend among parts of the Black community, but going to the theater regularly is less common.
Delano says a theatrical fandom “really blossomed” after college in Warwick, when she returned to London and saw Inua Elms’ Barber Shop Chronicles at the National Theater. There began a “sick obsession” in trying to reach every play she could find out about that was written by, performed by, and / or starred in Black Talent. And before long she saw something bad.
“Passion aside, the more I started watching theater shows with a majority of Black casts, or distinctly African / Caribbean plots, the more I realized that, as a Black audience, I was in the extreme minority,” she says. “Although anyone can enjoy good theater when plays are molded on black (African / Caribbean / black British) history and experiences, I believe these stories should be heard and experienced by the people on whom they are based.”
Take shows like Three Sisters or Strange Fruit Delano says – “for many Africans and Caribbean people these go beyond a standard theatrical performance. The stories told represent and reflect memories, family histories, life experiences and culture. I wanted to create a platform that connected audiences to the stories that are often part of who they are, ”she says.
Unless you’re part of the theater world, it can be really overwhelming to find out about shows – especially plays in smaller venues with less visible marketing. This is something Delano noticed when he posted reviews on his personal page.
“People would always ask me where I was, what shows I watched, and how I found out about the shows,” she says. “And I realized that a lot of black people, and specifically young black people aged 18-35, want to go to the theater, but for whatever reason they’re not aware of what to see and when. I realized I could try to close that gap, and two years later here we are. “
Delano pulls out a list of her favorite shows in recent months: Hamilton, of course, Yomi Ṣode’s And Breathe at the Almeida, Gbolahan Obisesan’s The Fisherman (adapted from Chigozie Obioma’s Booker-award-winning book). She also loved Nick Payne’s Constellations, which originally starred white actors, but was revived post-lock with a rotating cast of couples including black British actors Sheila Atim and Ivanno Jeremiah. “They were both amazing!”
Rendition pointed me to a few shows I know about that I wouldn’t have heard of otherwise. For Black Boys Who Considered Suicide When The Shade Becomes Too Heavy at the New Dioram could be one of my favorites yet. As the name suggests, it has not avoided the struggles that young blacks face in this country – investigating issues of knife crime, sexual assault and suicide, while still somehow managing to make the public laugh. The script and use of music was so innocently Black, and I left feeling inspired that a young Black boy can now go to the theater and see himself on stage.
During Black History Month, we were able to see a lot of shows done by Black talent – but there’s a lot more work to be done. This should be the norm, year-round. As Delano says, Black Theater helps us appreciate our shared experiences and history. “I especially love seeing our stories represented with range and thought, stories that go beyond some of the same traumatic stories we so often see in mainstream media,” she says. “Give me black untold stories, give me black British love, give me a black fantasy. Everything! ”