TAITMAIL Together apart – our black theatre women

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There are those in the malevolent social atmosphere we have built around us who would be suspicious of something called Black Womxn in Theatre. 

That precocious spelling, for a start, puts you on edge: another “herstory” lesson coming up. Politics has become a series of single issue factions, growing in number all the time, with groups taking to social media campaigns for LGBTQ, global warming, Brexit, Non-Brexit, antisemitism, Islamophobia, Islamophilia, Justice for Dads, Christians for Real Ale, and here’s another powerbase being constructed. As often as not, the loudest voices in any or all of them come from the theatre – well, they tend to be famous and know how to tell a story. 
 
But this is not that. Look at their faces, 250 of them: no scowl, no sideways glance, no aggressively crossed arms. These womxn - no, dammit, women – are enjoying themselves in eachother’s company. They met for a networking event in Black History Month last October and it was such a success there have already been two more since and the fourth will be in the autumn to mark Lynette Linton taking up the reins as artistic director of The Bush. They talk about mutual experiences, ambitions, fears, their profession, their careers, their theatre.
 
They’re pictured on the stage of Shakespeare’s Globe for the photocall, and the 250 are just a sample of the black women that are increasingly influential in making our theatre. They’re all accomplished, determined, hard-working, but there’s no trace of militancy. It’s not a feminist thing, not a race thing, just a the-way-things-are thing.
 
“We wanted to bring together all theatre staff and creatives across generations because we need to see each other, so many of us are experiencing isolation in our organisations and venues where we are usually just one or two” says Stella Kanu, the new executive director of LIFT and one of BWiT’s founders. “To be together in one moment in time is powerful for us and for our sector. We aim to drive a new conversation that celebrates and acknowledges the important role black women have played and continue to play in theatre and its diversity.”
 
And they’re bold, these BWiT ladies. One of them, who spoke at the most recent event, is Karena Johnson, artistic director of Hoxton Hall which, because of her varied programming, is the nearest we get these days to the music hall this venue used to be – everything from the launch of hip-hop records to the premieres of plays. 

But Johnson is an exemplar who’s done the hard yards. Born in Clapham she started her career, after a theatre studies MA, 20 years ago at Nottingham Playhouse, then ran a touring company and moved along via Theatre Royal Stratford East, Ovalhouse in Stockwell, directed at  the Tricycle, the Riverside, Stratford East, winning a Jerwood prize, ran Contact in Manchester, took over as artistic director at the Broadway in Barking in 2009 and six years later arrived at Hoxton. Grade II listed and the last of its kind, the hall has been restored by her.

Last year she programmed an entire three month season,Female Parts, using only women – actors, directors, writers, stage managers, every job was done by a female. “We’ve got to 2017 and we still have to make a point to whatever great institution it might be that you’ve announced your new season, and there’s not a single woman writer in it” she told us then. “And people don’t notice the absence of women in things – there’s a strange kind of default to men.

“So I wanted the opportunity to say there are amazing creative women and we need to put them out there, not only for their sakes but to make a space for young artists whose role models they can be”. 

And more than you think are black. In June she put on a play about a female astronau, Chasing Rainbows. which she commissioned and directed herself and was put on entirely by black women. She sees it as part of her job to set right an imbalance.

“It’s not that it makes me angry as that it gives me something to kick against, it’s what's interesting about the moment we’re living in” she says. 

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