In March 2015, highlights of the BBAS exhibition To Tell My Story were featured in Guardian Online
1. Paul Robeson with Peggy Ashcroft. Othello. Savoy Theatre London 1930
Robeson: ‘It is a tragedy of racial conflict. Othello in the Venice of that time was in practically the same position as a colored man in America today.’ He could not play the role in the USA until World War II; it remains the longest-running Shakespearean production in Broadway history.
2. Paul Robeson. Othello. Stratford-on-Avon 1959
After the War, Robeson’s socialism and struggles against segregation put him on the Blacklist and deprived him of his passport. Finally allowed to travel, he played Othello for one last season in Britain before illness ended his career.
Robeson: ‘Here is a part that has dignity for the Negro actor. Often we don’t get those opportunities. It wasn’t just about infidelity, it was the destruction of himself as a human being, of his human dignity.’
3. Edric Connor. Gower in Pericles, Stratford 1958
When Robeson was unable travel and play the narrator in Pericles, he recommended the Trinidadian actor-singer Edric Connor, who with his wife Pearl ran a pioneering agency for West Indian performers based in Britain. His Gower was a triumph.
4. Elisabeth Welch. Goddess in Derek Jarman’s The Tempest 1979
During the 1960s, such singers as Cleo Laine and Cy Grant popularised Shakespeare. Elisabeth Welch appeared as a goddess to crown Jarman’s Tempest film with a hymn: ‘Her rendition of “Stormy Weather” is full of… magic and spectacle (plus a healthy helping of camp).’ (Nathalie Morris, BFI.)
5. Josette Simon. Rosaline in Love’s Labour’s Lost. RSC, Royal Shakespeare Theatre 1984
‘They’d never had a black lead before. It caused a lot of head-scratching as to whether they should give me a lead role. Would the audience walk out, saying “What’s a black person doing in Elizabethan England?’’ I strongly believed that the thing audiences want, is to see something really good. ‘(Josette Simon 2013)
6. Hugh Quarshie with Gerard Murphy (Arcite and Palamon). The Two Noble Kinsmen. RSC, Swan Theatre 1986
After taking over the role of Hotspur in Henry IV, Hugh Quarshie then co-starred in the first Stratford production of Two Noble Kinsmen, which opened the Swan Theatre. ‘In the spring
of 1986, the black presence in British theatre looked ready to take off.’ (Bonnie Greer, 2006)
7. Willard White with Ian McKellen. Othello. RSC, The Other Place and BBC2 1989.
The opera singer Willard White became the RSC’s first black Othello since Robeson ‘Willard works completely from within himself. He doesn’t seem to use any technique, any tricks’ (Michael Grandage, Roderigo); “You bare your soul when you open your mouth to sing.” (Willard White)
8. Ben Thomas and Diane Parish. King Lear (rehearsal). Talawa Theatre Company 1994
After directing Antony and Cleopatra for her company Talawa, Yvonne Brewster planned a multicultural production of Lear set in the immediate future. When the brilliant Norman Beaton, cast as Lear, was taken gravely ill, Ben Thomas took over. He played Othello in 1997.
9. Vincent Ebraham and David Baker. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Tara Arts 1997
‘The actors convey the stiffness of the Court. Formal, still and disciplined.
In contrast, the fairies in the forest clamber over the scaffolding and scurry about the stage using the foot-thudding dance and fluid movement one encounters in Indian drama.’ (Financial Times)
10. Robert Bansee. Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. Tara Arts 2005
Kerala, South India. ‘A troupe of Indian performers, converted to Christianity by the Portuguese, presents The Merchant of Venice… Conversion of many kinds is central to this interpretation - the migrant's conversion, for example, to another way of life.’ (British Theatre Guide)
11. Iwuji. Title role in Henry VI. RSC, Courtyard Theatre 2006
When Hugh Quarshie played Banquo in Macbeth in the 1980s there were protests. Because Banquo was an ancestor of the Queen. Chuk Iwuji’s ‘eloquent humanity’ (Whatsonstage) followed the taboo-breaking performances of David Oyelowu (Henry VI,2000) and Adrian Lester (Henry V, 2003).
12.Jessica Manley. Miranda in The Tempest. Tara Arts 2007. Jatinder Verma (director): ‘A prophetic story about colonialism. Shakespeare suggests one way to begin breaking the impasse of separatism: empathy. ‘
13 Karen Bryson. Witch (and Lady Macduff) in Macbeth. Globe Education, 2010
Karen Bryson: ‘These stories are hundreds of years old, yet they’re funny, they’re gripping, they’re accessible. I started post the need to get ethnic minorities involved, after the vogue for colour-blind casting in the 1990s. And then the rubber band sprang back: “OK – we’ve ticked that box.”’