The Bite Magazine - Spring 2019 - Issue 24

bite theatre T heatre R eview I n the past few years, we have had more black-led theatre productions in West End such as Hamilton, Dreamgirls, Motown the Musical and Porgy & Bess than ever before. Yet the unsung heroes behind the curtains such as the set designers, costumer designers, composers and lyricists who have made the success of these sold-out shows possible, go unrecognised. Yes, the actors or the show as a whole get praised or hammered by critics in theatre publications but what about the recogni- tion of people in the background? Well, that is about to change because the brains behind the Black British Theatre Awards (BBTAs) – co-directors Omar F. Okai and Solange Urdang have recognised this huge gap in the market and are determined to fill it up starting with the soft launch of the awards and an even bigger ceremony later this year. Move over MOBOs! This recognition of black creatives in theatre was established to raise the profile of the role that black Britons have contributed to the UK’s artistic legacy as well as the impact they’ve made on an international level. Black Britons’ involvement in the world of theatre is nothing new. In fact, they have been actively contributing to this medium since before the first influx of Africans and Caribbeans into Britain during the 1950s. Despite these amazing people bringing a rich cultural influence and a whole new way of approaching theatre over the last 70 years which has seen an abundance of black talent in recent years, this has never been recognised. Black British Theatre Awards’ desire is to amplify the positivity of talent and creativity in British Theatre. An award-winning director and choreographer, Omar F. Oki, has worked on over sixty plays and musicals produced both in London and Europe. Coming from a family of creatives, his parents were circus performers in Austria long before he was born and his grandmother, Anne Barnes, was part of Britain’s first black African ballet company, Ballet Negre. Omar has also starred in the Oliver award-winning Five Guys Named Moe and went on to form the renowned Okai Collier Company with Simon James Collier, operating as Artistic Director. Solange Urdang is the CEO of Urdang Academy, founded by her mother Leonie in 1970, who left South Africa for the UK to escape the injustices of apartheid. Leonie desired to live in a fair, equitable and inclusive society and she was able to apply her core belief of breaking barriers that seg- regated the dance world through her company. Retaining that belief, Solange has spent her career pushing bound- aries and building cultural bridges. She sits on various panels to promote diversity in professional musical theatre and dance training. Speaking to both of them at the launch, you can see the real passion and desire to bring recognition of black talent to light. It was perhaps an article discussing the value of black performers and the negativity that came from that piece of writing as well as other factors that encouraged the two directors to do something about the current state of the matter. There are a number of key people such as Arlene Phillips, choreographer for Hot Gossip and theatre productions such as Grease who are silent advocates for diversity. Whilst Hollywood eventually recognised the likes of black actors Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge in musical film Carmen Jones or Hattie McDaniel in film epic Gone with the Wind , Britain is still lagging behind. English actors like Marianne Jean-Baptiste who was in the all-black cast production The Amen Corner and David Harewood, a Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) trained actor who is said to be the first black actor to play Othello, had Awards Black British Theatre Solange Urdang - Director BBTAs Image Credits: Michelle Marshall Photographer Kenneth Olumuyiwa Tharp CBE - Director of the Africa Centre Omar F. Okai - Director BBTAs The Bite Magazine attended the launch of the Black British Theatre Awards that will see a host of black creatives recognised for their work in theatre.