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Talawa Theatre: New Beginnings

Regarded as Britain’s best-known Black-led theatre company, Talawa Theatre Company is celebrating 21 years on the British theatre landscape with its first full Production in two years – Pure Gold, written by Michael Bhim, an emerging playwright, who is gaining the respect of his contemporaries. Is a renaissance on the horizon for Black-British theatre?

BhimWhen you first meet Michael Bhim, you get the impression of a quiet and reserved young man. Beneath the exterior of his calm and unruffled personality, he is letting his pen do all the talking that needs to be done as part of a group of young and emerging playwrights in the UK from the Black-British community. At 26 years of age, Bhim’s first full length play, Pure Gold, is currently showing at the Soho Theatre, as a collaborative production of Soho Theatre and Talawa Theatre Company.

Together, Bhim and Talawa are putting Black-British subjects on the UK theatre landscape. Adding to his already budding list of accolades, he was recently nominated for the Meyer Whitworth Award for his short play, Distant Violence, an honour which he say makes “Me feel extremely grateful to the people with tons of experience in this field who have supported me.”

Three years ago, becoming a playwright was a distant thought to Bhim, who dropped out of College but later went back to pursue a (BA) in English and Literature. “It was the last thing I’d ever imagined myself to be. Three years ago, writing was irrelevant in my life, as was theatre” says Bhim.  However, the case is now the reverse because Bhim’s second play, which he is currently developing, has also been commissioned by Talawa Theatre Company.

The journey has been a learning curve for Bhim, from the days when he was inspired to write his first play to its first reading at Tiata Delights 2006, a reading festival which celebrates writers of African heritage and organised by Tiata Fahodzi, one of Britain’s foremost British-African theatre companies. Bhim, whose roots stretch to Africa (Zimbabwe) and the Caribbean, and he is quintessentially British, delights in the knowledge that he is an avid observer of his immediate environment. Hence, it is no surprise that Pure Gold, which deals with the themes of fatherhood, poverty and family tensions, and described as a snapshot of Black inner-city life, as a father struggles to provide for his family. Bhim explains he was inspired by “The many people I lived with, in and around inner-city London, watching how our deferred dreams manifested in our daily lives.” He also drew from his personal experiences and family background while writing the script, “Growing up, there was hardly any money, lots of ambitions, good intentions and dreams but no money” he says.

Bhim, credits his life’s experiences as the pool of creative wealth, which has helped him to better understand the importance of character and dialogue in script. “We carry a wealth of cultural history in the way we speak and for me a character is about life’s experience and emotional state” explains Bhim. When he is able to fit these different factors together and imagine what it is like to live a certain way, then he can step into the shoes of the character he wants to create and find the truth.

cumperThese are some of the artistic values which were embedded in the script and attracted Pat Cumper, artistic director of Talawa Theatre Company, also an accomplished playwright and one of the UK’s most respected Black writers. “As soon as I read Michael’s play, I knew it was something I wanted to bring to the stage. He writes about the Black British experience in a way that makes it universal and powerful” she explains. The future of the working relationship between Talawa and Bhim was further sealed as Cumper admits being impressed by Bhim’s ability to bring his characters to life. “I was immediately impressed by the complexity of the characters and their relationships, and gave ordinary characters a poetic voice and observed them with great humanity” she says.

As a theatre company, Talawa has taken rest from the public stage in the last two years, gone through a process of re-structuring and is back with its vision of exploring the Black-British experience and finding the voices that tell Black-British stories. It is a period in the company’s history which Cumper believes has allowed them to go back to basics in order to return as, “Re-branded, re-focused and revitalised with a clear mission; to tell Black British stories, nurture the talent to best do so and welcome Black audiences, and audiences for Black work to our productions.”

talawaOne way Talawa is developing and nurturing this talent, is through its New Writing programme and has worked with the likes of Derek Walcott and Courttia Newland in times past. The New Writing arm of the company comprises of Talawa Writers Group, Script Development and Script Reading. Bhim has benefited from being a member of Talawa Writers Group, which offers emerging and established playwrights the opportunity to expand on their skills with key industry leaders and present their work in a showcase of play readings. “Sometimes, the best thing you can do for a writer, is to believe in their work and put your money where you mouth is” explains Cumper. This seems to have paid off with Bhim, who credits Cumper for the assistance he received while working with Talawa. “Pat Cumper, the artistic director has been a great pillar of support and encouragement. As a writer herself, she has immense understanding of how to mentor a new writer such as myself” he says.

For Bhim, whose primary aim was “to create a fresh artistic identity for the Black-British image and have people relate to the experience of the overlooked voices in this country.” It looks like his plan has worked with well respected critics like Lyn Gardner of the Guardian newspaper admitting the play has grit to it.

While Cumper and Talawa have plans to keep developing their writers and new writing through stories that reflect Black-British life, she also envisions the future of the company as a bright one with shows across London and the regions Most importantly, she would like “TalawaTheatre Company to have a solid reputation for excellence, and a loyal audience for our work and be a respected part of Britain’s cultural landscape” she explains.

Bhim, who remembers sitting in Hyde Park not long ago with the script for Pure Gold in his hands after it had been rejected by every theatre but looks back today and is grateful for how uncompromising about what he wrote. It is not strange for every writer to desire their work is produced. As for Bhim, “I no longer worry about the things I can’t control. I’m a writer and I write, that is enough for me.” he says. “If I get the chance to share my thoughts and feelings with the outside world, it is a bonus.”

While recent times has seen a continuous growth in the rise of British Playwrights, from Kwame Kwei-Armah, whose new play, Statement of Regret will be at the National Theatre this November, to Roy Williams, also opening this October with Joe Guy, showing at the Soho Theatre and the added bonus that Pure Gold was a success. It looks like a bright future is indeed in-store for Black-British theatre in the UK.

Note: This article was written in 2007 and first published by CatchAVibe Online  magazine.

Watch out next week for interview with new Talawa Writer,Olu Alakija as part of Talawa’s Flipping The Script New Season: Flipping The Script

Images: Talawa Theatre


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