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Black British Playwrights

by Lynette Goddard, Professor of Black Theatre and Performance at Royal Holloway, University of London

Oberon Books’ Black British plays have appeared in both mainstream and fringe theatre venues. The plays featured here showcase the predominant themes of identity politics and the aesthetics of form in Black British playwriting from the 1980s to the contemporary stage.

Strange Fruit, The Story of M, Moj of the Antarctic, Iya-Ile, and Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner are all free to view until mid-December 2021. Chewing Gums Dreams and Black Men Walking can be viewed by subscribers only.

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Strange Fruit by Caryl Phillips

Although better known as a novelist, Caryl Phillips began his writing career with the plays Strange Fruit, The Shelter and Where There is Darkness and he also adapted Simon Schama’s Rough Crossings for the stage.

Strange Fruit explores themes of racism, activism and resistance in a socially realist style through a depiction of two second generation Black British brothers who are questioning their sense of ‘home’ and belonging in Britain while having a complex relationship to the Caribbean. The play offers a snapshot of an era as their mother remembers the racist slurs directed at her when she first arrived in Britain during the 1960s and the brothers respond in contrasting ways to the racial and police violence targeted at young Black people on the streets during the 1970s and 1980s.

Strange Fruit was first produced at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield in 1981 and revived at the Bush Theatre, London in 2019 as part of the ‘Pass the Baton’ season in which a neglected Black British play was produced alongside a contemporary new commission.

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The Story of M by SuAndi

SuAndi is a poet and performance activist and Cultural Director of the National Black Arts Alliance.

SuAndi wrote The Story of M as a tribute to her white mother. The solo piece is set in a hospital room and shows Margaret (M), who is dying of cancer, reminiscing about bringing up mixed race children in Liverpool and Manchester in the 1950s and 1960s. M recounts painful experiences of racial prejudice and discrimination while showing how she instilled them with a sense of pride in their Black identities. SuAndi’s performance of M’s memories is both poetic and humorous, supported with a slide-show of photos that helps to create a nostalgic feel.

Since its first performance at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1994, The Story of M has been one of SuAndi’s most requested works with productions at theatres and conferences nationally and internationally.

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Moj of the Antarctic by Mojisola Adebayo

Mojisola Adebayo is a playwright, performer, workshop facilitator and academic. Mojisola writes in a playfully political and poetic style to explore stories of relevance to LGBTQI+ communities.

Moj of the Antarctic is a one-woman performance piece inspired by the true story of Ellen Craft, a light-skinned African-American woman who escaped from enslavement in 1848 by dressing as a white man with her husband acting as her servant. Mojisola queers Craft’s transracial and transgender performance in a story about lesbian love cruelly torn apart and embarks on a theatrical Odyssey that travels from the Deep South to Antarctica where Moj becomes a sailor on a whaling ship. The performance was made in collaboration with the photographer Del La Grace Volcano and images of Moj in Antarctica are projected throughout as a response to climate change and the impact of rising sea levels on the continent of Africa.

Moj of the Antarctic was first produced at the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith and the Oval House Theatre. Muhammad Ali and Me and I Stand Corrected are amongst Mojisola’s other plays that were produced at the Oval House.

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Iya-Ile (The First Wife) by Oladipo Agboluaje

Oladipo Agboluaje is a playwright and academic whose plays explore social and class politics in contemporary Nigeria. His writing merges styles from West African satire, music, and dance with theatrical realism.

Iya-Ile (The First Wife) is Agboluaje’s prequel to his earlier play The Estate, which was based on Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and depicts a wealthy Nigerian family returning to their mansion in Lagos for the wake, funeral and thanksgiving party for the father, Chief Adeyemi, and farcically battling over their competing interests for his estate. Iya-Ile is set twenty years earlier in 1989 and portrays the same characters in a story about how the marriage between Chief Adeyemi and his first wife Toyin broke down and how his former house girl Helen rose up to become his second wife and the head of the household. The story is told in a satirical style that critiques class structures, politics and corruption in contemporary Nigeria, while the setting around Toyin’s fortieth birthday party celebrates Yoruba culture and set dance pieces to Fela Kuti music.

Iya-Ile and The Estate are two of Tiata Fahodzi’s most successful productions, playing to sell-out audiences at the Soho Theatre. Agboluaje won the Alfred Fagon Award for Iya-Ile.

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Chewing Gum Dreams by Michaela Coel

Over the past nine years, Michaela Coel has become one of the UK’s leading Black actors and writers. The series I May Destroy You, which Coel wrote and starred in, was one of the big television hits during the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown.

Coel’s debut play Chewing Gum Dreams is a humorous, semi-autobiographical, coming-of-age, one-woman play that portrays the antics of fourteen-year-old Tracey and her schoolfriends as they navigate their lives in London through themes of first loves, first sexual encounters, and teenage pregnancies. The play shows the importance of friendships during teenage years.

Coel wrote and performed Chewing Gum Dreams in her final year at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama before developing it for The Yard Theatre. The production later transferred to the Bush Theatre and after winning the Alfred Fagon Award played in the former Cottesloe Theatre at the National Theatre. The play was also adapted into the Channel 4 series Chewing Gum (two seasons), in which Coel played the lead role.

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Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner by Jasmine Lee-Jones

Jasmine Lee-Jones is an actor and playwright.

Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner is a very contemporary play in all senses of the word, most apparently in merging IRL or 'in real life' scenes with a social media Twittersphere composed on the page of colour printed tweets, gifs, memes, emojis and twitter language phrases (LOL, tbh, wtf) that the actors embody in performance. The comedic story centres on two friends, one of whom is imagining the different ways that she could dispense with Kylie Jenner, the social media figure and model who became the world’s youngest self-made billionaire at twenty-one years old. Pertinent themes of race and gender politics, sexism, cultural appropriation and the politics of success are explored, while commenting on ideas about online public personas and internet trolling.

Lee-Jones originally wrote Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner as a ten-minute play for the Royal Court Theatre’s Writing Group and developed it during her final year at Guildhall School of Music and Drama. A full production was staged at the Royal Court Theatre in 2019, winning amongst other awards the Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright.

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Black Men Walking by Testament

Testament is a West Yorkshire based hip hop MC, poet and theatre maker.

Black Men Walking was commissioned as the first play in Eclipse Theatre’s ‘Revolution Mix’ initiative of seven new touring Black British productions exploring stories from Britain’s hidden Black histories in regional theatres.

In contrast to many contemporary Black plays, which are set in domestic or urban settings, Black Men Walking is set in the rural countryside, portraying three Black men on a hike in England’s Peak District National Park. As the men walk, they talk about Black history and experiences of racism while claiming their right to hike in the English countryside, an activity that is rarely associated with Black people. The poetically layered play is inspired by a Black Men’s hiking group based in Sheffield.

Black Men Walking was co-produced with the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, where the production opened, before touring to venues, including the Royal Court Theatre in London.

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Visit our Previously Featured Content page to view other topics including Explore Hamlet in the Round, Female Playwrights - a brief history and Plays and Playwrights from Around the World.