Black British Theatre and Performance Course Director Oladipo Agboluaje shares highlights from the first session in 2023.

About a year and a half ago, Eunice Roberts, the dean of BADA, invited me to design a course on Black British theatre. I am a playwright and had taught the subject at Goldsmiths, University of London and the London Study Centre, Florida State University. I was excited to introduce the course because while African American theatre is popular among audiences and studied in universities in the UK, I felt that Black British theatre did not receive the same attention in the States. Here would be an opportunity to correct that imbalance with our inaugural course.

I thought to design a course that would offer students an overview, providing them with the social, historical and artistic contexts out of which Black British theatre and performance arose. The course would intimate the students with seminal moments and works by influential playwrights and performers. We would look at Black British theatre’s inextricable link to the Diaspora and how this link has shaped Black identity in Britain. We would study seminal plays to illustrate these links and visit places of interest to cement the class learning. Academic teaching would be supplemented by workshops and masterclasses where the students would meet with major contemporary practitioners.

Patrice Naiambana’s course, ‘Diasporic Performance in a British Context’, analysed Othello from an African performance-based perspective. Each class was dedicated to reworking the body and voice of the students so they could re-engage with the text in new performative ways. The key learning outcomes were to give the students new performance tools and language, and a perspective on performance as a decolonial aesthetic. Tuesday mornings were a riot of sound and movement as the students put their learning into practice. Voice training was supplemented with a masterclass by Claudette Williams, course leader of the Acting BA at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, and one of the leading voice coaches in the country.

The weekly visits gave us opportunities to see different parts of London such as Brixton, the symbolic home of Black people in Britain. We didn’t get the visit the Black Cultural Archives as it was shut for emergency repairs, but we got to visit the market and the brand-new Brixton House theatre. The market’s diversity was exemplary of a changing Brixton. It gave a snapshot of the waves of immigrants that have made the place their home. A trip to Talawa Theatre, Britain’s longest existing theatre company to meet with artistic director Michael Buffong took us to their venue in Croydon outside London.

Kwame Kwei-Armah, the artistic director of the Young Vic, graciously let the class sit in on a rehearsal for his play, Beneatha’s Place, which was the theatre’s upcoming show. Most of the students would not be around for when it opened, so they were able to get a peak of what the show was about and more importantly to see a major writer-director at work. Kwame was generous with his time, fielding questions from us during the break period. We were also grateful to the company for letting us watch them go through their processes bringing the play together.

Actor and historian Burt Caesar took us on a curated tour of the Museum of London Docklands in Canary Wharf. Burt was one of the advisers of the slavery exhibit and explained in detail the history of British involvement in the slave trade.

During the four-week period, we were lucky there were plays relevant to the course for us to see. Most of the creatives in these shows took up our invitation to meet with us. We enjoyed Jennifer Lunn’s Es and Flo at the Kiln  and a few days later enjoyed the company of the two leads Liz Crowther and Doreene Blackstock at BADA. Matthew Xia, artistic director of ATC had already agreed to talk to us about directing the UK premiere of Tambo and Bones. On the night we went to see the show, Matthew introduced us to the playwright Dave Harris who had come down from the States for the rehearsals. Dave promised to meet us after the show. Let’s just say that after the show, Philly was in the house and everyone in East London knew it!

Among the artists’ Q&As, we had in big hitters Winsome Pinnock and Roy Williams. Like, Kwame, these two writers have contributed in no small measure to Black British storytelling. Having them in the building was a treat. Listening to them talk about their careers gave us a sense of what it was like working in British theatre and illuminated our reading of their plays.

We had a surprise visit from Brian Cox of Succession fame. I’d been a fan of Brian’s work long before the HBO hit but it was an event to meet him in the flesh. He was passionate about Shakespeare and the importance of learning how to perform his work for an actor.

It has been an adventure running this course for the first time. I could not have asked for a better first cohort of students along with FAMU professor Kimberly Harding who audited the course. It was special in too many ways to explain. I cannot wait for the next cohort to experience their own adventures come June 2024.

Header photo: 2023 Participants with Playwright Winsome Pinnock

To learn more about Black British Theatre and Performance or for application details and deadlines for the 2024 session, visit our Black British Theatre and Performance page.