Critically Black: Contemporary Black British Dramatists and Theatre in the New Millennium

Lead Research Organisation: Goldsmiths College
Department Name: Drama


This research offers detailed comparative and critical attention to the impact upon contemporary British drama, of new millennial indigenous black writers: Kwame Kwei-Armah, debbie tucker green, Lemn Sissay and Roy Williams. To date, only a handful of anthology and journal articles have considered the contribution of black drama to UK drama and literary heritage, let alone this recent influential coterie. Monographs relevant to the field have either omitted neo-millennial dramatists, focused upon specific historical periods (staging slavery, Ira Aldridge), considered women practitioners only, or else mentioned drama in relation to other predominant genres (novels, life-writing, poetry or their adaptation for theatre) and British Asian writing. My task is shaped by four intentions: (i) to contribute to a critical infrastructure that interrupts the legacy of disappearance characterising black people's drama in British theatre and literary historiographies and hence, establish a problematised continuum; (ii) to extend theorization developed in other disciplines (film, television, music) and genres (novels, poetry) through engaging specifically with the field of drama: its live performance endpoint and as published text; developing an inter-referential methodology which better considers these texts as both printed and performed embodiments of words, taking into account the experiential and linguistic knowledge they create and the production contexts which influence this (iii) to make thematic links between the dramas through tackling issues of form, genre, aesthetics and performance strategies by offering analyses of theatricalised concerns and complexities around: language, family, violence and victimhood, diasporic and indigenous identities, universality and sociological inevitability (iv) to recognise the grip of genre and its traps--social realism and postcoloniality--and their stifling effect upon an emerging black British drama aesthetic, as filtered through two influential receptive contexts: theatre critics and the academy.My theorising of these writer's aesthetics foregrounds a further marginality, dramatisations of: black lesbian, queer and mixed-race experiences and the care system. Substantial socio-cultural commentary exists regarding mixedness, the care system and trans-racial family structures. However, performance and literary analysis lags behind in examining creative representations of these experiences. If theatre is to serve the indigenous multi-cultures that constitute contemporary Britain, the building and sustaining of a critical infrastructure, through retrieving and assessing black people's drama contributions is vital. Euro-centric and Western aesthetic principles have dominated performance and literary criticism as definitive indicators of quality, smothering potential for alternative aesthetic identifications and forms of articulation evident in recent contemporary writing. I focus upon work which sidesteps these impediments, notably through analysing tucker green's radical dramatic-poetics and mondrama's formal theatricalising of spoken-word performance strategies in relation to black British cultural self-fashioning, exploring the legacies identifiable from both European and African traditions. My research culminates in the monograph titled, Critically Black: Black British Dramatists and Theatre in the New Millennium. Its six chapters provide theatrical, literary and socio-historical frameworks for analysis of the profiled dramatists' inheritances. It draws together research I have been undertaking into this field over the past six years featuring ongoing dialogue with the dramatists and their peers through interviews and publications. Selective reference to their contemporaries (black and white) elicits comparisons and contrasts that testify to the noteworthy transformations black British dramatists' work has effected to conceptions of contemporary indigenous British drama both at home and abroad.

Planned Impact

As the non-academic audiences for my work will be the theatre-going and general public (including young people in arts and educational contexts), those with an interest in spoken-word poetry, poetry in performance, practitioners and writers, this research's impact will be to enhance general cultural awareness of black British dramatic-poetics and also present a new cultural experience for readers and writers in how the distinctive textuality might be explored and interpreted. It will benefit pools of knowledge concerning: the creative output and important role black British writing plays in contemporary British culture; the transformative implications of black dramatists' work to theatre-going and performance, notably in the light of the Arts Council's Race Equality Plan (2005) and Sustained Theatre initiative. My research provides academic and activist expertise for contemporary theatre by strengthening and deepening the quality of discussions relating to black citizens' cultural visibility in the UK and abroad, providing a focus, recognition and point of reference as their work enters other avenues of reading besides performance - particularly abroad. Abroad, the research underpins drama historiography and critical introductions I produce for theatre companies on the writers (Kwei-Armah, Sissay), their peers (Adebayo, SuAndi) for international productions/tours of their work in theatres, schools, and community settings.(Baltimore US, South Africa, Botswana, Malawi, Australia). Thus a direct interface is created between informing production teams, the wider public and reinforcing the writers' pre-eminent positions in re-framing conceptualisations about British culture and heritage. The impact is identifiable in the fact that their work is now taught and performed in a number of African countries producing knowledge across two distinctive sites of African diasporic culture: Britain and the countries on the African continent. I am considered to be instrumental in this by a number of the writers themselves. The exposure my research offers their work benefits the writers and anyone seeking critical information on this indigenous generation of black dramatists. It creates not only intellectual capital for the field but is a resource about contemporary black drama in British theatre, consolidating interactive thinking about black- and white-led traditions. Through some public engagement activities in the UK, my research will contribute to knowledge and quality of life. I will convene a public platform with black dramatists (National Theatre Studio/Black Theatre Archive and Society for Theatre Research, 2011) to continue the forum of public discussion I established in March (2010), enabling opportunities for non-drama specialists to directly particpate in debates about the field. Future projections of impact beyond the academy include developing critical writing workshops for young people about drama, in collaboration with the Arvon Foundation and Spread-the-Word to make an intervention into longevity impediments and to encourage young people's contributions to a critical mass, of work that speaks to them. This compliments my pedagogical determination to increase the visibility of black people's input into discursive arenas and to keep these dramatists' works in the public eye through creating accessible knowledge networks through partnership with established public sector arts organisations. My ongoing work with Apple 'n' Snakes (I am collaborating in its archiving and heritage access for young people), the new Black Arts Alliance and SABLE lit.mag for new black writing, mean that activities building upon my research (as relevant to their creative programmes), are planned for 2011. The impact overwhelmingly is that my research enhances public engagement regarding critique and reception of the dramatists' work and the field of black


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Title D-Day: Celebrating Diane Abbott's 25 years as an MP 
Description Panellists, speakers, artists: Moira Stuart, Ken Livingstone, Herman Lord Ouseley, Darcus Howe, Malorie Blackman, Harriet Harman, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Linton Kwesi Johnson Hugh Muir, Heidi Safia Mirza, Yvonne Brewster, Angie LeMar, Margaret Busby, Hannah Pool, Patricia Cumper, SuAndi, Malika Booker, Kadija George, Dorothea Smartt. Published outcome: 'Deirdre Osborne In Conversation With Diane Abbott MP' Special Issue: Women and Politics for Women: a Cultural Review Dec. 2013 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2012 
Impact This has led to a series of Conversations with Black British Writers, setting up Radical Raconteurs series of Black British thinkers and established a profile for Goldsmiths as a black-centred cultural space for the arts through the MA BLack British Writing. It consolidates links with black-led arts organisations and political networks. 
Description 1. My overarching aim has been to contribute to the developing critical mass in Black British drama through theorising the field with special attention to contemporary dramatists' work. As a keynote speaker at the recent Society for Contemporary Drama in English annual conference (Ruhr, Germany) I was introduced as the person to whom the organisers automatically turn 'for expertise and commitment to the field of Black British writing'. The keynote combined my advocacy for a transgeneric critical approach between literary criticism and performance analysis with a focus upon the staging of mixed-race experience through the form of monodrama - all areas which underpin my monograph Critically Black. I have sought to avoid the pitfalls of contextually reductive thinking which subsumes the work of Black British dramatists into a receptive framework as reflective of social issues-based interpretations and contiguities rather than theatrical or aesthetic legacies. I have achieved this through identifying aesthetic paradigms that are emerging in Black British drama as a distinctive contribution to Britsh theatre historiography particularly in terms of poly-generic work and the epistemological restructuring process demanded by the fluidity of its lexical borders; their contributions to monodrama, with its formal multi-vocality,destabilising of the unified sense of self, where self and other diverge and merge simultaneously through a solo performer, a form which my proposal asserted, 'clamours for closer investigation in its challenges to standard academic interpretive methods.' I have developed an historical overview which aims not to replicate the scholarship of earlier periods but to chart an albeit imperfect continuum (pre-1945) in order to acknowledge the backdrop to contemporary writers' cultural and conceptual inheritances, negotiating the push and pull factors that shape the writers and their dramas' imaginative scope. 2. March to April 2013 I shall be meeting fellow researchers to develop dialogues concerned with a trans-national pedagogical concerning the translation of cultural space in relation to indigeneity. The lectures are as follows: (i) 'Being alone together': the ego-histoire of indigenous Black British Writers' Adoption Aesthetics, (Monash University, Melbourne). (ii) 'Skin Deep', a Self-Revealing Act: Monologue, Monodrama, and Mixedness (University of Sydney). (iii) Being alone together': the ego-histoire of indigenous Black British Writers' Adoption Aesthetics (University of New South Wales) (iv) 'Not Set in Stone': The Many Performances of Landmark Poetics, (Queensland University of Technology). I have developed the MA BLack British Writing and in the lead up to this, have created a programme of public-facing events from May 2014: CocoaLime- in conjunction with Fringe St. Lucia, SABLE literary magazine, St. Lucian High Commission I hosted an evening of readings by Black British and St. Lucian poets for the public and students of my institution. Black British Writers in Conversation: 1. Writing history: Bernardine Evaristo and Andrea Stuart in Conversation (Sept. 2014) 2. Black Bodies and Britain's Cultural Institutions: Courttia Newland, Sara Myers and Robbie Shilliam (Oct. 2014) 3. Black British Feminism: Sara Ahmed and Heidi Safia Mirza in Conversation (Nov. 2014) 4. Renegade Raconteurs: PC, An Evening of Critical and Political Conversation with Diane Abbott, Hannah Pool, Simon Woolley (DEc. 2014) I gave a public lecture, 'Hearing Voices: Landmark Poetics and Black British Heritages' at the University of Palermo, October 2014.
First Year Of Impact 2012
Sector Creative Economy,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

Description Black Plays Archive 
Organisation Royal National Theatre
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution I have been commissioned by the Royal National Theatre, Theatre Archive to scrutinise their digitised archive of all plays and productions of work by black writers in Britain before it goes live, compile a bibliography of the field of Black British Drama for the Archive and have been commissioned to contribute an essay of Black British Women and Theatre for it that is aimed at the general public. This follows the invitation to organise and chair an annual expert panel for the National Theatre on Black British Drama. This collaboration has also been extended to a research methods component of the MA Black British Writing, Drama and Performance which I have developed with Professor Joan Anim-Addo of the English and Comparative Literature Department at Goldsmiths to be taught from 2013. The digital resource consists of a commissioned article and bibliography of Black British drama and culture for the National Theatre's Black Theatre digitised archive and so I will not have to maintain it. The archive will of course consult me as to any future changes it might wish to make to this article and additions to the bibliography as it will invariably require.
Description AHRC Fellowship Lectures United States 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact (i). "Contemporary Black British Writing and Post-colonial Histories" State University of California, Los Angeles. I taught two sessions of two hours to undergraduate students about this field and made connections with students' own migratory histories in relation to US citizenship.

(ii). "Lemn Sissay's Landmark Poetics" Howard University, Washington DC. This was a talk given to an MA class and produced conversations with doctoral students as well.

(iii). "Monodrama and Black Women's Voices" Sarah Lawrence College, New York. Students were unaware of the work of Black British writers and this introduced a whole new discourse to them.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011
Description Australian University lectures 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact 3. Australian university talks (March-April 2013):

(i) 'Being alone together': the ego-histoire of indigenous Black British Writers'
Adoption Aesthetics (The University of New South Wales). Journalism and Media Research Centre.

(ii) 'Skin Deep', a Self-Revealing Act: Monologue, Monodrama, and Mixedness'
(The University of Sydney).

(iii) 'Being alone together: the ego-histoire of indigenous Black British Writers'
Adoption Aesthetics' (Monash University)

(iv) 'Not Set in Stone': The Many Performances of Landmark Poetics, (The University of Melbourne).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
Description Black British Drama Masterclass, Cottosloe Theatre, Royal National Theatre 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Chair and organiser: Black British Drama Masterclass, Cottosloe Theatre, Royal National Theatre. (Panel: Prof. Colin Chambers, Drs. Suzanne Scafe and Lynette Goddard and Michael Buffong plus actors from the cast of Moon on a Rainbow Shawl) This was designed to enable staged reading from a selection of Black British playwrights' work to be discussed by academics and then in conjunction with audience questions.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
Description Black British Writers in Conversation series 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A series of 6 conversations with authors, academics and audiences around the literature of BLack British writers and thinkers. The series created a profile for the first degree in the world in this field MA BLack British Writing which I have co-developed and co-convene.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description Thoughts on British Black and Asian Literature (1945-2010) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact An afternoon's symposium of discussion with leading scholars in the fields of post-war British Black and Asian Literature with readings by Moniza Alvi and Courttia Newland, sponsored by Wasafiri:
Prof. John McLeod (University of Leeds)
Dr. Malachi McIntosh (Runnymede Trust)
Prof. Susheila Nasta (The Open University),
Prof. James Procter (Newcastle University)
Dr. Suzanne Scafe (London Southbank University)
Dr Paul Warmington (University of Warwick)
Prof. Chris Weedon (Cardiff University)
Chair: Dr Deirdre Osborne (Goldsmiths)
Respondent: Dr Valerie Kaneko Lucas (Regent's University)
Launch of first Cambridge Companion to British Black and Asian Literature (1945-2010) ed. Deirdre Osborne
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017