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Talawa turns 25!

ENCOURAGING: Director Don Warrington and actress Gbemisola Ikumelo in rehearsal

THIS YEAR, Talawa, Britain’s largest black-led theatre company is celebrating its 25th birthday.

The respected organisation, which was founded in 1986 by Yvonne Brewster, Carmen Munroe, Mona Hammond and Inigo Espejel, is marking the momentous occasion by producing a year-long season of black work, including a live art presentation of the biting political satire The Colored Museum at The Victoria and Albert Museum.

The production, directed by renowned British actor and director by Don Warrington, takes its audience on a time-travelling adventure through 200 years of black American history and culture.

It casts a humorous but unflinching eye on questions of identity and legacy.

Originally written by US playwright George C. Wolfe, the play premiered at the Crossroads Theater in New Brunswick and later transferred to the Public Theater in 1986 (the same year Talawa was founded), where it was described by The New York Times as a “wild new evening of black humour.”

Known for producing great black British theatre, the company’s artistic director Patricia Cumper, who will step down from her role next year, spoke about the company’s relevance, 25 years after its formation.

“I was looking at all of the plays that came out the year Talawa was formed and The Colored Museum was one of them,” says the Jamaican-born director. “I was fascinated by the fact that a lot of the issues in it are issues that we are still dealing with today; the sense of identity and how we negotiate things.

“I also wanted to do something that was fairly noisy for our 25th, so we are not sitting down doing a quite little piece! I thought if you could be in the middle of the British establishment and still be asking really difficult questions, then that is a really interesting thing to do. In this piece, there’s a space for talking about identity in a different way, not in a defensive way. Looking at ourselves and celebrating what we are and who we are, but also being critical of who we are.”

Getting to a quarter of a century has been a huge challenge for the organisation, but they have managed to endure against all odds.

“A lot of the theatre companies closed down during the ‘80s, but Talawa managed to survive, due to lots of hard work. We had to consistently deliver and establish very clearly that when we say we are a black-led theatre company, we are saying that this is what we are, in a positive way."

“A lot of people say, ‘why have a black theatre company, isn’t it separatist, putting yourself into a ghetto?’ But the same way you have an all woman’s theatre society, we have a specific interest and that is the relationship between Africa and Europe. That has created all sorts of amazing things. It has created terrible things like slavery too but also amazing stories and that’s what interests us.”

Having to consistently affirm their existence to the government or other potential funders, Cumper said the company faces a battle each time they apply for financial support, despite the fact that they constantly produce popular, groundbreaking theatre.

“We have been cut by about 20 per cent,” she reveals. “We got the standard cut and then were cut slightly more but we still are the largest funded BAEM (black and ethnic minority) led theatre company in the UK.

“The other thing that is happening is that there is less and less work for our artists, so we feel the responsibility to generate as much work as we can. It’s hard times; people don’t work as often as they used to.”

In addition to its productions, Talawa (which took it’s name from the Caribbean expression ‘talawa’, meaning small but feisty) runs a summer school for aspiring actors, and has produced stars like actor Nonso Anozie, who starred in this year’s big-budget movie, Conan the Barbarian.

Throughout her time, Cumper has been able to develop the business to fit the youngster’s needs.

“What’s fantastic for me is that we give these kids the space to be theatre-makers who draw from their own heritage and experiences with complete confidence. We are now at a stage where we are giving them a lift up, because it’s a hard life, with a lot of rejection.”

After five-and-a-half years at the helm of the company, Cumper announced earlier this year that she will be leaving the post in 2012. Looking back at her time at the organisation, she recalls one of her fondest memories.

“When [actor] Shango Baku starred in our production of Rum and Coca Cola, there were moments for me that were pure theatre magic. But I have to say I have most enjoyed the summer school productions, watching young people just take on theatre, not be afraid of it and just say some bold things.”

Looking ahead for the next 25 years, Cumper would like to see the company secure its own theatre in the future.

“I hope the Talawa will be in its own space soon. I hope it will be creating people that walk confidently out into the mainstream and take on senior jobs and that we will have a really solid national presence.”

l The Colored Museum is at the Lydia and Manfred Gorvy Lecture Theatre at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London from October 15-23. For more information, visit

www.vam.ac.uk or www.talawa.com

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