Tuesday 17 March 2015

Play Mas & Actings Black Promise

There have been a number of 'moments' for me in my latest job.

I went for an audition at The Orange Tree Theatre with Paulette Randell. Paulette has directed some great plays and also co-directed the Olympics Opening Ceremony in London. I knew Paulette from Fences, a play she directed with Lenny Henry in which I understudied. Although I was happy to audition I wasn't convinced it would go anywhere as the shoe, Play Mas, is a Trinidadian play and let's just say my Trinidadian accent wasn't the best.
Paulette Randall and I

So I was very happy to get the call informing me that I'd got the job.
I've worked at The Orange Tree before so it was with a pleasant, familiar feeling that I walked through the door on the first day of rehearsals. A familiarity which was slowly replaced with a sense of nostalgia as I scanned the gathered cast. Let's be clear - I wasn't star struck or overwhelmed (that doesn't happen to me), rather I was caught in a a sense of appreciation at sharing space with 2 people that I had watched on TV when I was young.
The importance of this is probably hard to understand unless you were young and black in the 80's.
Llewella Gideon was part of the stellar cast in the BBC's one and only black sketch comedy The Real McCoy and Victor Romero Evans was part of the cast of Channel 4's first sitcom No Problem (also directed by Paulette Randall) about the fortunes of a black Family whose parents had returned to Jamaica.
Both shows were classic good comedy, well produced, well acted and accessible to all despite being 'black shows'. They were never to be seen again not even in DVD form. Given the amount of shows that are being collected I could make the obvious racial conclusions but I'm sure you don't need me to connect such huge dots.

Regardless, to see black people on the screen in quality roles was not the norm at this time and there is not a black person of my generation alive who is not aware of these two shows and their impact on us.
You can see a sample of No problem above and The Real McCoy on the right.
Essentially it feels like legacy to be involved with this cast.
My next moment came a few days later when Paulette brought in Darcus Howe to help provide context for the play. Darcus is a Trinidadian who was a black activist in Britain back in the 70's. An incredibly intelligent and knowledgeable man who went on to have his own current affairs television show called The Devils Advocate. To spend time with this influential, funny and thought provoking man was quite an honour.
Next came Mustapha Matura, the writer. This play by Mustapha, a native Trinidadian of Indian origin, premiered at the Royal Court in 1974, winning the Evening Standard Award for Best Play, and then transferred to the West End. What I didn't realise was that Mustapha had also written for No Problem back in the day.
Finally the cast. The cast is very very good and very very funny and very very generous. I love acting but when you go into work knowing that you are going to laugh everyday amidst the sweat and fear it's a very special thing.

The thrust of this post though is one that shouldn't be hard to identify. I am sharing time, not with people who make me star struck or cause me to geek out; but with people who were instrumental in my desire to act, with people who were important to 'the cause'. To people who intelligently and hilariously became visible black faces in a time when there were very very very few. They represented a time on television of high hope and optimism for 'us', which I believe has unfortunately not been capitalised on, which has in fact gone backwards.

Ask yourself to name a British television show in which an ethnic person has led the narrative. Luther comes to mind but that's not on TV at the moment; and lets not forget that the star of that particular show had to go abroad to be given the respect that his talent was worth. This is not about the lack of talent, or the lack of 'black roles(I hate that term), but about some appalling gate keeping.To be in an industry so long and not see the change that was promised must be galling and yet these soldiers, soldier on.
Regardless come and see this play for whatever reason, to honour those involved, to celebrate some veterans, to enjoy some good writing, or just to laugh at some comedy with a dark edge. You won't regret it.

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