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Opening statement

Mapping British Black and Asian Shakespeare 1930-2012


This symposium was organised by Delia Jarrett-Macauley as a key part of our three-year AHRC-funded investigation into the history of multicultural Shakespearean performance in the UK.

The project aims to build a database of Black and Asian performers and performances working on Shakespeare in this country since 1930, when Paul Robeson played Othello in London. There will also be an oral archive of interviews with artists and audiences. Two books are planned, including a volume of essays that will we hope pursue some of the debates and issues raised in this symposium - an event that brings together performers and directors, critics and administrators, historians and activists.

In this reclamation of the work of brilliant but in many cases marginalised or forgotten artists, our project is of course working alongside many others, from the National Theatre Black Plays Archive to investigations in universities from London to Exeter and elsewhere, and it’s inspired by the pioneering research work of, to mention only two names, Errol Hill and Stephen Bourne. Meanwhile the past is being honoured by contemporary performers - as Lolita Chakrabarti and Adrian Lester bring Ira Aldridge alive in Red Velvet and Tayo Aluko explores the struggles of Paul Robeson. There’s synchronicity here and, we hope, the seeds of future collaborations. This is not simply a project gathering together memories and documents - it must survey and celebrate contemporary work and consider options for tomorrow.

BBA Shakespeare is the public face of our project. Material on historic and modern British Black and Asian classical performances and updates will be made widely available through an interactive website, as well as touring exhibitions and community workshops. The first panel exhibition, ‘To Tell My Story’, was launched at Warwick Arts Centre six months ago and has been invited to theatres, libraries and schools in London, Bristol, Slough, Leicester and St Lucia. The goal here is outreach and invitation: we need to hear from artists and audiences, young and old.

‘Shakespeare’ is at the heart of British culture. ‘Shakespeare’ is cultural capital. This project will honour great individual achievements and, we hope, map shifts in a developing national consciousness.

Tony Howard

2nd July 2013