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Decolonise Your Bookshelf: Discover Theatre's Diversity

Updated: Aug 20, 2021

Hello, hello, hello. I’m Shakira. A queer, mixed race and working-class Brit who likes to act, write, produce, and chat industry professionals' ears off on my podcast called Gettin’ Creative, in collaboration with the National Youth Theatre.

In the very limited spare time I've had in the last few years of work and studying (which I have just finished, graduating with a first; can I get a “yessssss bitch”?!) I love to watch and read theatre plays.

This hasn’t always been the case. In fact, in my school days, second only to PE (I used to say I was on my period and/or would “forget” my kit nearly every week), reading plays was one of my least favourite things to do.

This doesn’t make any sense. I’ve been into performing plays since I was the Cowardly Lion in the year one performance of The Wizard of Oz. 🤷🏾‍♀️🦁

I realise now, hindsight always being 20/20, that I disliked reading plays in school because the plays I was being given to read never had anyone in them that I could relate to.

Plus, all I can really remember from my many repressed school memories is having Shakespeare force-fed to us, and me being ignored when I repeatedly told the teacher that I had no idea what I was I reading...

School days

Growing up, I was “the black one”. Literally, there were about five non-white students in my entire senior school, and I was the only one in my school year. So, like the rest of my less-melanated peers, I wasn’t aware of, or at least didn’t notice, the lack of diversity in the school curriculum. In fact, I wasn’t paying much attention to the curriculum at all.

School in the noughties was packed with unfulfilled children and teens just dragging themselves through the day, going through the motions until 3pm when the final bell rang. Then we'd go hang out in the park until the sun got too low, or the smell of spag-bol filling the streets meant it was time to get yourself home.

For me, this is how I spent most evenings after school, sometimes joining the friendship group a little bit later due to an hour-long detention, usually caused by me questioning the teacher’s unprogressive views, or me being the class clown all day.

In my experience, state schools hate entertaining and creative kids, especially when they’re not white.

Flawed curriculum

But my lack of interest in the curriculum led to me accepting whatever was – or more importantly wasn’t – being taught to us.

A Guardian article from September 2020 states that “the largest exam board in the country, AQA, does not feature a single book by a black author among set texts for its GCSE English literature syllabus, according to a report by the education charity Teach First.”

In June 2021, Penguin Books UK tweeted that just 1% of GCSE English Literature students study a book written by a writer of colour, and no more than 7% study a book by a woman. Very mad when you consider that 34.4% of said students are non-white. Just 0.1% of students study a book by a woman of colour.

Unfortunately, despite being “higher” education, the drama school curriculum mimics this model too. I can only speak to my own experiences and would never want to speak for others, but during my three years of studying at a drama school – one that had for the last few years been named the “most diverse in the country”, contrary to its actual lack of diversity – I was only taught by two non-white members of staff. I was also given an embarrassingly small amount of literature to study or perform that had been written by anyone from the Global Majority.

All of this is to say that my personal introduction to non-white playwrights and plays, with characters that looked like me and reflected my own experience, was one I had to seek for myself. And chiiiile, I can’t believe how much talent, culture and SPICE was missing from my literary diet.

Broaden your bookshelf

In this mid-COVID, post-lockdown era, being able to finally go to see live theatre again has been magical. And I’ve been very fortunate and managed to nab myself a ticket to some absolutely fire shows written by non-white playwrights:

and breathe… by Yomi Ṣode

I saw and breathe… at The Almeida in June 2021 and was blown away. The writing (Yomi Ṣode), directing (Miranda Cromwell and Ewa Dina) and musical composition (Femi Temowo) was spectacular, topped off with David Jonsson’s electrifying performance.

The play is an investigation into vulnerability and pride within Black British culture. The one-person show is both an exploration of loss within a Nigerian family and the conditioning of behaviour of Black men. Yomi has a beautifully poetic voice within his writing. There is a rawness and authenticity that brings each character to life and makes you fall in love with every word written. I’m excited to see what else is in store from this genius in the future.

After hearing the buzz around this play and the phenomenal emerging playwright Jasmine for just over a year, I was very chuffed to have managed to nab myself a Monday £12 ticket to get to see this fantastic show in June 2021.

I was far from disappointed. The show uses audio, lighting and a moving set to create a full sensory and cinematic experience (shoutout to stage manager Sylvia Darkwa-Ohemeng who bossed this show, and who runs an amazing collective of freelance backstage creatives of the Global Majority called Backstage Niche).

The play itself is a powerful comment of cultural appropriation and freedom of speech on the internet. Jasmine is a powerhouse. She ticks all the boxes in everything I want to see/read, and everything I want to be as a writer myself. She has more work for us to feast on coming up soon: a one-person show, about youthfulness, Blackness and queerness (basically everything we Stan!), called Curious which will be running at the SoHo Theatre for a month starting mid-September.

I first saw this amazing piece of gig theatre at the Edinburgh Fringe Theatre in 2019 at the Pleasance Dome and ROUNDABOUT @ Summerhall. I was blown away at how well the cast of four actor-musicians worked together to create an extremely interesting story about a boy who grows up in ends but gets a scholarship in a posh, predominantly white private school. It shows the lengths of code-switching he has to go to in order to keep the peace on both sides of his life.

I enjoyed this show so much, I brought the play text and went to see it again at it’s transfer in the same dome in Stratford East a few months later. Daniel writes by making beats to the mood of the scene and having his monologues flow to them as if they were a song. He is extremely talented and cool – definitely a writer to watch!

Hymn by Lolita Chakbrabarti

I watched the amazing two-hander Hymn, performed at the Almeida by acting legends Adrian Lester and Danny Sapani, online during the pandemic – and loved every moment of it.

The storyline transcends any particular demographic, but the details added to it cater more towards the characters' experiences as Black men in Britain, creating additional nuances that made the storyline and climax even more heart-warming and heart-wrenching, simultaneously. Hymn is back on now at the Almeida. Get tickets whilst you can – you won’t be disappointed.

Shedding A Skin by Amanda Wilkin

I was recommended this by a friend and I’m SO glad I listened and got myself a ticket. Shedding A Skin is a beautiful story, written and performed by the enchanting Amanda Wilkin, about connecting with elders and their wisdom.

Amanda’s comedic timing and captivating dialogue makes me very invested in her career, and I'm excited to see what she gives us next.

Death of England by Roy Williams

Death of England is a story split into two plays, from two perspectives written by award-winning playwright and mentor Roy Williams and the legendary Clint Dyer.

Death of England is a one-person show from the perspective of white working-class Brit named Michael, while Death of England: Delroy is from the perspective of Michael's Black childhood friend Delroy.

I managed to catch the Delroy version, when it was streamed mid-pandemic on National Theatre’s YouTube, and I can’t praise it enough; everything from the writing, to the set, to the performance (by the brilliant Michael Balogun)… all of it. Chef’s kiss.

Roy recently joined me on my podcast. Check out his episode and hear all about his legendary career so far, and which non-white playwrights that he recommends.

Typical by Ryan Calais Cameron

I got to see Typical, performed by Richard Blackwood, in the flesh at Edinburgh Fringe in 2019. This hour-long monologue tells the true story of Christopher Alder’s last few hours before he died in police custody in Hull in 1998.

The dialogue is poetic and almost rap-like. Blackwood gave an electrifying performance and Ryan’s writing was punny and enticing. Ryan is a force to be reckoned with and has multiple top-tier projects underway right now. Jump on the fandom train now so you can watch him on his ascent to greatness.

Ryan founded Nouveau Riche, a multi-award-winning creative movement, headed by a team of professional performing artists and producers whose objective is to discover, nurture and produce unique stories with a keen scope on work that is both educational and entertaining.

Overflow by Travis Alabanza

I had the absolute pleasure of watching Travis’ most recent one-person monologue Overflow when it was livestreamed from The Bush Theatre during the winter lockdown.

The show is set in a bathroom in a busy bar where the protagonist, played by the hilarious and inviting Reece Lyons, talks on their experience as a trans woman. This show was so awe-inspiring, raw and emotional for me that I wrote my final essay for drama school about it and got top marks for it (thank you for making it so easy to write thousands of words about your masterpiece, Travis).

I’m convinced Travis is going to take over the world with both their poetic and engaging theatrical work but also with their activism for Black trans and gender non-conforming rights. I am fully hooked on them and their career so far, and I hope one day our paths cross, and we get a chance to work together in the future. Imagine how iconic that would be.

Get buying

Most of these plays can be found on Drama Online and/or can be brought from local retailers. Here’s a list of some Black-owned bookshops to buy from here in the UK:

Address: 76 Stroud Green Rd, Stroud Green, London N4 3EN

Twitter: @newbeaconbooks

Instagram: @newbeaconbooks

Twitter: @thisisbooklove

Instagram: @thisisbooklove_

Instagram: @afroribooks

Address: 97 Granville Arcade, Coldharbour Lane, Brixton, London, SW9 8PS

Twitter: @BooksRound

Instagram: @RoundTableBooks

Address: 1 Windrush Sq. Brixton, SW2 1EF

Twitter: @bcaheritage

Instagram: @bcaheritage

Further reading...

Some more playwrights of the Global Majority whose work both myself, my industry peers, and the streets (aka Twitter) rate highly:

Once you’ve gotten through all of these fantastic recommendations, if you get stuck trying to find a play by Black writers, head over to The National Theatre’s Black Plays Archive, created and curated by the wonderful playwright and former NT Associate Kwame Kwei-Armah.

So, there you have it. One girl’s opinion on some of the great playwrights your school’s curriculum won’t teach you about. When your drama school teachers ‘struggle’ to find anything not written by cis-het white people, send them the link to this article and tell them I’m here and ready for a f̶i̶g̶h̶t̶... chat.

Shakira Newton is a queer, working class and mixed-race actor-writer and producer from Portsmouth, living in London. She recently starred in a short film that she wrote called Three Dates, and will soon publish three separate monologue books curated and produced by by Rikki Beadle-Blair and John R. Gordon of Team Angelica Books, called LIT, Common and Fierce.

Shakira co-runs a theatre/production company called Piece of Cake Theatre Company (Instagram: @poctheatreco / Twitter: @POCTheatreCo). She also runs a podcast in collaboration with The National Youth Theatre called Gettin’ Creative (Instagram: @gettincreativepodcast / Twitter: @gettincreative_) where she chats to folk from all creative industries about their careers and gets advice for the audience. Follow Shakira on social media to keep an eye on all of the exciting projects she has coming up: Instagram: @shakiraaashakiraaa; Twitter: @ShakiraNewton.

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