Walk in the Light – National Theatre Platforms: Part 4: Centre Stage…A Celebration – Sunday, July 21, 2013, Lyttelton Theatre Carole Woddis.

Fifty years old and going strong, the National Theatre last week paid a fine and welcome tribute to black artists and their contribution to British theatre.

And what a contribution they have made.  Perhaps it is living in London gives a heightened sense of how theatre should reflect all our nation, black and white.

Back in the 1980s when I first started reviewing, British theatre suddenly saw an explosion of what was then termed `black’ theatre.

At the time, there was a good deal of discussion about how they should be described.  In the States, by then, `black’ had given way to `Afro-American’, a term that never quite found its equivalent here in `Afro-British’, `Caribbean-British’ or indeed `Asian-British’ for that matter.

In the mid 1980s, British Caribbean, African and Asian companies all came in under the name `Black’.

I make the point only to underline the fact that the National’s Walk in the Light celebration seems to have been one confined to the Caribbean and African related British theatre – an influence emphasised in Sunday’s otherwise splendid and at times, intensely moving performance by its opening, rousing gospel sung by the immense in voice and stature Sharon D Clarke, the presence of the Walk in the Light Mass Choir and a finale which included yet another gospel uplifter.

Perhaps the fact that James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner is currently in residence in the National’s Olivier theatre, a production which boasts the London Gospel Choir had something to do with it.  But it did also feel as though the celebration, in a sense, suddenly became hi-jacked by other influences.

Which is strange.  Because Giles Terera – whose brainchild Sunday and indeed the week long series of afternoon and evening platform conversations it was – had put together an otherwise wonderfully eclectic and apt array of play excerpts and songs representing a half century of struggle to be recognised and receive parity of representation and opportunity of artistic expression.  And those early plays of the ‘70s, ‘80 and ‘90s certainly kept religion firmly in the background unless it was to do with more mystical, African-based forms.  Indeed, it was more usually cricket, domestic affairs and family skirmishes that took centre stage.

In any event, you only had to look at the performers on stage performing the readings to realise they amounted to a veritable roll-call of the best black British artists around, led by an ever ebullient Lenny Henry and including Clive Rowe, Cyril Nri, Marianne Jean-Baptiste (currently starring in The Amen Corner) and others who if they are not household names, by dint of their talent, certainly should be.  Chief among them, Adjoa Andoh, opera singer Melanie Marshall, Tanya Moodie (currently starring with Lenny Henry in August Wilson’s Fences in the West End), Peter de Jersey and not least Noma Dumezweni.

With rehearsed readings from past playwrights, Alfred Fagon, Caryl Phillips, Mustapha Matura and Nigel D Moffatt, it was Dumezweni’s reading of Winsome Pinnock’s 1991 Talking in Tongues – a return to her ancestral roots describing women caught in the act of washing that became a ritualistic outcry – that brought tears to the eyes, as indeed did David Harewood’s sombrely straightforward account of Neville Lawrence’s statement about he and his wife’s immediate treatment by the police after the death of their son, Stephen.

But it was Terera’s own epic poem, specially written for the occasion, I’ll Walk with You’ that paid the most handsome tribute – an account that acknowledged the pain, pride and ultimately honour to those who had gone before and paved the way for those like writers Roy Williams, Rikki Beadle-Blair, Bola Agbaje, Kwame Kwei-Armah, actors Jenny Jules, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith and so many more to finally find their place in the sun.

As Lenny Henry pointed out, citing the late, great – and often in his words `naughty’ – Norman Beaton, the only way for black artists to progress is really for `us to have our own theatres, our own tv companies.  And he’s still right’.

In other words, there is still a long way to go.  But Terera’s brilliant coming-together of past and present has also shown just how far, collectively, they have come.  And what support they can gather from each other, in adversity.

Walk in the Light, a week of events honouring the rich contribution that black artists have made to British theatre over the past 50 years, ran from July 15-July 21 and also featured conversations with actors Mona Hammond and Jeffery Kissoon, directors Yvonne Brewster and Oscar James, writer Mustapha Matura, actors David Harewood and Gary Wilmot, American playwright Bonnie Greer, Winsome Pinnock, actor Hugh Quarshie, director Paulette Randall (who was also Associate Director for the 2012 London Olympics Opening Ceremony), actors Nikki Amuka-Bird and Clive Rowe, writer-actor Kwame Kwei-Armah, actor Tanya Moodie and National Theatre director, Nicholas Hytner.

For more info, see www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Carole Woddis © July 2013.