The destination for history

Black women in British theatre


In his latest book, author Stephen Bourne celebrates the pioneers of Black British theatre. A powerful study of theatre’s Black trailblazers and their profound influence on British culture today, Deep Are the Roots is also a personal history, and not an objective, academic one. Here, Stephen discusses some of the pioneering women whose lives have interwoven with Black British theatre.

The women on whose shoulders we now stand

On 2 December 2017 I had the pleasure of taking part in Palimpsest: Symposium - A Celebration of Black Women in Theatre at the National Theatre. It was the actress Martina Laird who invited me to take part and celebrate the work of those she described as ‘the women on whose shoulders we now stand’. I said I would be happy to start the event (which included two panel discussions) with an illustrated talk about early appearances of black actresses in British theatre. I gave it the title ‘Black Women in British Theatre: The Beginnings 1750s to 1950s’ and I began by acknowledging the actress who had played Shakespeare’s Juliet in Lancashire in the late 1700s. The attendees included many black women who were drama students, actresses, playwrights and directors. I wasn’t sure how many of them would have heard about the actresses I discussed. There is very little accessible information about the early years of black British theatre and so the lives and achievements of many of these women have been lost in time and space.

The actress who played Juliet in the 1790s remains unidentified, but the reference to her ethnicity is clear. When John Jackson published The History of the Scottish Stage in 1793, he noted the following:

‘I had accidently seen the lady, as I was passing through Lancashire, in the part of Polly [in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera]. I could not help observing to my friend in the pit, when Macheath addressed her with “Pretty Polly” that it would have been more germain to the matter, had he changed the phrase to “SOOTY Polly.” I was informed, that a few nights before, she had enacted Juliet.’

At the National Theatre, I began with the unidentified actress who played Shakespeare’s Juliet in the 1790s and closed with Cleo Laine’s dramatic debut in Flesh to a Tiger at the Royal Court in 1958. I spoke about Emma Williams, the West African who acted in George Bernard Shaw’s Back to Methuselah in the 1920s, sharing the stage of the Royal Court Theatre with Edith Evans and a young Laurence Olivier. After 1929, Emma vanishes but other black British actresses surfaced in the 1940s, and I mentioned them also, including Ida Shepley and Pauline Henriques. I hoped that the talk would draw attention to the lives of these extraordinary women. Afterwards, I took part in a panel discussion hosted by Martina Laird and Natasha Bonnelame, Archive Associate at the National Theatre. The panellists also include Yvonne Brewster and Angela Wynter. It was an enjoyable, inspiring event. That was the morning session. In the afternoon, Martina and Natasha hosted another panel discussion, this time bringing Yvonne and Angela back together alongside the actresses Anni Domingo, Noma Dumezweni and Suzette Llewellyn.

In the 1980s and 1990s I had the pleasure of befriending some of the women who are featured in this book. They include Elisabeth Welch, Pauline Henriques, Carmen Munroe, Cleo Sylvestre, Pearl Connor-Mogotsi, Nadia Cattouse, Isabelle Lucas, Joan Hooley, Corinne Skinner-Carter and Anni Domingo. Over a long period of time, these personal friendships have given me insights into the work of black women whose lives intertwined with many aspects of black British theatre. Trusting me with their stories and, in some cases, sharing their memorabilia, has been a wonderful experience.

In 1987 I met Carmen Munroe for the first time when I interviewed her for the magazine Plays and Players in her dressing room at the Lyric Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue. Carmen was taking it easy between the matinee and evening performances of James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner in which she played – brilliantly – the leading role of Sister Margaret. Carmen told me that her first professional appearance was as a maid in Tennessee Williams’s Period of Adjustment at the Royal Court in 1962: ‘But I never played a maid again. I figured once you have played a maid, there didn’t seem much point in playing another.’ Eventually some good theatre work came her way including Alun Owen’s There’ll Be Some Changes Made (1969): ‘I thought “Gosh, this is the opening that I’ve been dying for”. We had wonderful reviews and I thought “I hope this continues,”’ and it did, with a revival of Jean Genet’s The Blacks (1970) at the Roundhouse: ‘This gave black actors and actresses a great opportunity to get together and really put on what turned out to be a wonderful production.’ Then came George Bernard Shaw’s The Apple Cart (1970) at the Mermaid. ‘Following in Dame Edith Evans’s footsteps’, wrote one reviewer. ‘Why doesn’t someone write something for this girl?’, wrote B. A. Young in the Financial Times.

For Carmen, these years were particularly rewarding but, in 1971, the work suddenly stopped: ‘I did a lot of work. Mainly because directors wanted to use me. Then it changed. Suddenly black artists became a “threat” to the establishment.’ Carmen believes that Enoch Powell’s inflammatory ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968 was partly responsible for this. In 1973, she seriously considered giving up her acting career: ‘For almost a year I spent a depressing time believing that I was not going to realise my potential. This is a hard thing to take. But I hung on.’ In 1985, Carmen played Lena Younger in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun at the Tricycle Theatre. It was directed by Yvonne Brewster. And when The Amen Corner came along, she told me she found it ‘amazing to be in a cast where people are doing something wonderful. It is fulfilling to be part of this. To experience this. I’ve been in the business a quarter of a century and I’m aiming to partake in the next quarter of a century too, and hope there will be more work like The Amen Corner’. There was and Carmen continued to win critical acclaim for her leading roles in such plays as Alice Childress’s Trouble in Mind at the Tricycle in 1992.

I met Nadia Cattouse for the first time in 1989 and she offered some fascinating insights into the problems black actors faced in the 1950s and 1960s, especially if they came here from the Caribbean:

‘They had this fixed idea in their heads that, if you were American, you were streets better than anyone who came from the Caribbean. Our accent bothered them. They constantly told us to place our emphasis on a different syllable, and this would make us so self-conscious we could never think ourselves into a role because we were always conscious of the demand from the director, or whoever, that we speak in a different way. And so there was a kind of loss of control of the performance we would like to give. I had a lot of that. We did not want to rock the boat so usually we could use our intelligence to guide ourselves through, without upsetting the status quo, because time costs money in this business and we had to remember that too.’

I also enjoyed meeting Corinne Skinner-Carter in 1998 when I interviewed her for the Black Film Bulletin. Corinne had come to Britain from Trinidad in 1955. She worked as a dancer and actress but she also had teaching to fall back on when acting work became scarce. After her arrival, Corinne befriended Claudia Jones, a fellow Trinidadian who, like Edric and Pearl Connor, also Trinidadians, made things happen. Corrine said:

‘Claudia had been persecuted in America for her political beliefs. After settling in England, she launched the West Indian Gazette in Brixton. This was Britain’s first major newspaper for black people. In 1958, Claudia decided to pull together a group of black people from the arts, to show everybody that we were here to stay, that there was harmony between blacks and whites, in spite of the Notting Hill riots. So, Claudia co-ordinated the first West Indian Carnival in Britain with the help of Edric and Pearl Connor, Cy Grant, Pearl Prescod, Nadia Cattouse and myself. The first Carnival took place in St Pancras Town Hall, and it was packed! It was not until 1965, the year after Claudia died, that Carnival took to the streets of Notting Hill.’

Corinne also gave me an overview of her life and career: ‘I have always been very selective. If I am not happy with a script, I turn it down. But I have been fortunate. On coming to England in 1955, I trained as a teacher, so I haven’t always had to rely solely on acting for my bread-and-butter.’

Extracted from Deep Are the Roots: Trailblazers Who Changed Black British Theatre by Stephen Bourne

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