Youth film reveals the hidden gems of black theatre

The term black theatre might conjure up images of a niche and very 20th century concept, but from Ira Aldridge playing Othello in Covent Garden in the 1830s to the 1990 production of Amani Napthali’s Ragamuffin and to grime star Bashy in a rap opera a couple of years ago, the genre is historical and diverse – if lesser known than its mainstream counterpart.

A youth-led film being premiered at London’s Royal Court theatre today, Margins to Mainstream, seeks to demystify and tell the story of black theatre in Britain. Made by young people in west London and Birmingham, in a partnership between London’s Octavia Foundation and Nu Century Arts in Birmingham, with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, its visual treasures include forgotten plays and landmark performances.

Those who appear in the film include playwright and broadcaster Kwame Kwei-Armah and Pat Cumper, director of the Talawa Arts Centre. The film was shot at locations including Theatre Royal East, London Southbank Centre, Royal Court Theatre, Old Vic and The Tabernacle.

The cross-city project allowed young people in London and Birmingham to learn and develop skills in media, research and film-making and is the latest in a series of innovative community filmmaking initiatives from the charity.

Zakiya, 18, a sixth form student studying photography, media and sociology and a tenant of Octavia Housing, adds that working on the project has inspired her to see more theatre and be more creative: “I didn’t really know anything about black theatre before, or theatre in general but it was really great and we saw some good productions…this project has helped build my experience in the field – I’m studying media, sociology and photography and want to be a photographer when I’m older. Seeing the finished film and knowing I’ve been a part of it is incredible.”

After the premiere in London the film will be screened at venues throughout London, Birmingham and the rest of the country and made available to theatres, arts and community groups and other interested groups later on this year. You can find out more about the screenings here.