Representing Black Britain

Talawa Theatre Company was created in 1986. Since then it has continued to blaze a trail for Black artists and theatremakers. In an exclusive blog for IAM, artistic director Michael Buffong discusses the company’s work and its latest production Bite Your Tongue

This year, with post-Brexit racism, fallout from the Trump administration, as well as events at Charlottesville and Nelson’s column, how people think and talk about race is at the front of all our minds. Bite Your Tongue from Talawa’s TYPT company (which works with young theatre makers aged 18-25) addresses these issues of identity, expression and power – but more on that later.

First, a bit about who we are. Talawa is the UK’s primary Black-led touring theatre company, with more than 40 touring productions ranging from African classics to Oscar Wilde; Talawa put the first Black Cleopatra on the British stage. Our writers, directors and personnel now work in all areas of British theatre. Our past informs our present, and guides us into the future.

2017 has seen us present two shows at Edinburgh Festival Fringe – Girls and Half Breed – with our co-producing partners, which was a first for us. Both productions have been a resounding sell-out success, with positive audience reception and strong reviews – including four-star reviews for both productions in The Times. 

Our mission to develop the artists and theatre-makers of tomorrow is at the heart of everything we do. For us, this means broadening the spectrum of work created by Black British artists by commissioning new writing, and the developing ideas through seed commissions.

These programmes fall under Talawa’s MAKE initiative: A UK-wide community of Black theatre makers empowered to create their own path through a range of development activity. Talawa MAKE activities includes:

  • Talawa Firsts – an annual festival showcasing new plays and work by Black writers and theatre makers
  • TYPT – our annual summer school for new and emerging theatre makers
  • Outreach efforts, including bespoke and curriculum based workshops for all ages and abilities
  • Writing development programmes for emerging and established writers such as our Script Reading Service and Talawa Writers’ Programme

Later in 2017 we will be launching MAKE Online, an online community enabling artists to make connections, test ideas and develop them for production with our help, and help from associate companies.

Our investment in new talent runs throughout the year, and also extends to our TYPT programme, which puts emerging theatre makers together with established artists to develop their practice, test ideas and produce a brand-new piece of theatre in just four weeks. There is no script at the start – the whole story develops as a result of the ideas and interactions of TYPT participants, and the whole TYPT process is open to participants, from initial production meetings to script development sessions; from meetings with graphic designers to the get-out.

Bite Your Tongue by Talawa Theatre Company
Bite Your Tongue by Talawa Theatre Company

Bite Your Tongue is the latest TYPT production from Talawa Theatre Company. The show is a response from emerging theatre makers to how we communicate race, identity and belonging in a multi-cultural city. As new terms and labels enter our vocabularies while others become obsolete, Bite Your Tongue explores whether we should be reaching towards one common language, or creating a whole new language to express our uniqueness.

We’ll then close 2017 and open 2018 with a co-production of the musical Guys & Dolls with Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre.

In our 30th year, investing in new voices ensures that Talawa Theatre Company continues to grow the pool of Black talent across the UKs theatre industry. For us, that’s the way to inspire dialogue with and within communities, to effect lasting change, and to ensure that the diversity of the Black British experience is represented.

Michael Buffong is artistic director of Talawa Theatre Company based in London. Its next TYPT production Bite Your Tongue opens at Hackney Showroom on 31 August and runs until 2 September.