Fugitivity through Black digitality: podcasting in the Black Plays Archive

Nadine Deller

The Black Plays Archive

In October 2019, I began doctoral research in partnership with the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and National Theatre (NT) on the Black Plays Archive (BPA), focussing on Black womxn playwrights, their work and positioning within British theatre. The BPA is an online archival project run by the National Theatre.

Initiated in 2009 by Kwame Kwei-Armah, the BPA seeks to address the under-representation of Black theatre histories by ‘documenting the first professional production of every play by black British, African and Caribbean writers in the UK’.1 The BPA does this through an online archival catalogue which directs users to physical and online archival materials in several British archives holding documents on Black British theatre history, some of which can be found in the National Theatre’s in-house archive. There is no physical BPA building; it is a hybrid archive – both digital and physical, containing online audio recordings of several play extracts and informative essays on Black British theatre. The BPA catalogue website launched in 2013, is described by Lynette Goddard as ‘one initiative that further ensures the legacy and future access to plays by Black writers in Britain’.2 In the first months of research, moving between the university and the National Theatre, I was plunged into an institutional environment that reminded me of Sara Ahmed’s incisive words in Strange Encounters: ‘whiteness can be a situation we have or are in’.3 Work on the BPA proved to be the latter: sifting through and researching Black theatre histories and materials, whilst submerged within and adjacent to whiteness. Ahmed describes ‘institutional whiteness’ as the ways that ‘institutional spaces are shaped by the proximity of some bodies and not others’, where institutions are ‘orientated ‘around’ whiteness’ and as such naturalise whiteness as the norm.4 Within these white spaces, there is ‘the institutionalisation of a certain ‘likeness’, which makes non-white bodies feel uncomfortable, exposed, visible, different, when they take up this space’, and certainly mirrors my experience of working on the BPA, where I felt as though my body was ‘out of place’, on unstable, ever-shifting ground.5

In this article, I want to consider the impact of institutional whiteness on my own position as a Black ‘mixed race’ researcher, and how the development of a podcast on Black British theatre history (That Black Theatre Podcast) enabled me to negotiate my feeling of being ‘the stranger’ into a newfound position of ‘Black fugitivity’ within the BPA.6

Being ‘in’ whiteness, feeling strange 

It is no secret that the National Theatre is complicit in reproducing the white gaze in British theatre to an extent – for example, recent figures show that in 2018/19 only 5.6% of the theatre’s permanent staff identified as ‘Black/Black mixed heritage’ with this percentage increasing slightly in 2019/20 to 6.8%.7 Recently, the NT has taken steps to further diversify the racial and ethnic demographic of its senior staff; for instance, on 26 January 2021, the NT publicly announced that Clint Dyer had been appointed as their first Black Deputy Artistic Director.8  Despite the development of the NT’s efforts towards racial equality, I felt dislocated within the archive; working within a repository of Blackness that is cocooned by whiteness, positioned as an ‘ethnic minority’ in the institution that had chosen me to provide research, to do and be diversity.9 As Ahmed points out, whiteness is dependent on the continual construction of certain bodies as ‘strangers’, as ‘some-body we know as not knowing, rather than some-body we simply do not know’.10 For me, although working with supportive and friendly colleagues, who I respect and admire, I felt like a fugitive, the thing that is ‘wrong’, the thing that is ‘alien’.11 I was a ‘body out of place’, yet my presence was necessary to do the work.12 What’s more, it became clear to me that the BPA was hard to fathom and access, a strange concoction of elitism and egalitarianism, created for Black communities, but not necessarily accessed by us. The difficulty in grasping the BPA is influenced by its nature as a hybrid archive space, which does not have a physical building where all its contents are gathered; although it has a digital archive website, its materials are instead dispersed across different theatre, performance archives and digital resources. The practicalities of accessing Black theatre histories, despite the data being held in a digital format, are difficult to manoeuvre for socio-economically disadvantaged and marginalised communities, which suggests there are shortcomings in the BPA’s ability to disseminate materials on Black theatre to Black communities.

At some points in my engagement with the BPA I could feel and touch archive materials, but overwhelmingly the ‘body’ of the archive was only revealed through travelling: into the internet, into a web of separate archives, into the private histories and testimonies of theatre-makers. The difficulties I found in comprehending and analysing the BPA made navigating it a frustration at first – I had been brought into the archive to analyse it, critique it, disseminate my findings; and yet, I could not grasp it. What use is an archive without a ‘body’? How could I examine a hybrid space of digitality and analogue preservation when it is scattered? The BPA is different to several other performance archives in which it sits in relation to – its hybrid nature demonstrates how digital technology can preserve Black cultural memory, whilst also pointing towards the ongoing exclusionary practices in British theatre and archiving that limit the spaces Black bodies and histories occupy. It is certainly telling that the development of the BPA began only four years after the controversial decision by Arts Council England (ACE) to remove £4million of funding towards a dedicated Black arts centre.13 ACE’s decision to remove the funding for a physical Black cultural space highlights the continuing historical problems faced by Black artists to carve out dedicated performance spaces for Black work, which has been a point of contention throughout Black theatre history.14 Given the BPA’s predominantly online presence at the National Theatre, it occupies considerably less physical space than the NT’s in-house archive materials. The lack of physical space and documents afforded to the BPA at the NT Archive is an issue which is also difficult to detach from the history of the National Theatre’s relationship with Black British theatre practitioners. Despite the ongoing improvement in ethnic and racial diversity at the NT, it is arguably still an institutionally white theatre, which historically did not produce a single play by a Black British male playwright until 1991 (Mustapha Matura’s The Coup) or a play by a Black British womxn until 1995 (Winsome Pinnock’s Leave Taking).

Considering the problem of the BPA’s hybrid, fractured nature, how could I ‘talk back’15 from the archive, which still retains residues of colonial knowledge production?16 One clear problem that I had was that few people had heard of the BPA, so activating its content and disseminating Black cultural output became a question I wanted to address. How might I use my own position – one in which I found myself moving within whiteness, whilst attempting to push against it – to challenge what the BPA is and what it might become? How might we ‘out’ the archive as a colonial/white space, whilst dispersing Black theatre histories and work out there in the public sphere? These are, and remain, difficult questions to grapple with, which cannot be solved with concrete answers. 

The question of ‘talking back’ from the BPA within the institution, whilst disseminating disparate pieces of Black theatre, became something more tangible – ironically – when I started to consider how the digital aspects of the BPA might be utilised to claim the position of being the ‘stranger’, and create a space of fugitivity which is validating and affirming. Fugitivity, for me, was manifested through the development of a podcast on Black British theatre. Before I discuss the podcast, I shall turn my attention to digital knowledge transmission and how this impacted my thinking on my position as a ‘fugitive’.

Digitality and fugitivity

When I began to consider the possibilities of digital knowledge transmission, the question of what knowledge and data is, and how I might use it, became pertinent. Cesar Hidalgo argues that information is physical, and only survives if it reproduces, rather than because it is stored on a physical device.17 This argument speaks to three problems in the archive: firstly, that Black British theatre is still under-researched; secondly, that archives are still incomplete and/or fractured; and thirdly, that Black British theatre is still situated within contexts which favour white ‘Europatriarchal knowledge production’.18 Hidalgo’s argument also connects to the potential to reproduce information on Black theatre histories in Britain and performance ephemera through digital modes. Through a partially digital archive the BPA could be used to reproduce not just preserve Black cultural output through transmitting non-textual archival materials, such as audio play extracts and oral testimonies by Black theatre practitioners, to digital devices. The ongoing conflicts and struggles of trying to carve out physical spaces, ‘break down the door’ as Winsome Pinnock asserts, make it no surprise that the BPA found its home as an online website and archive catalogue.19 Still, thinking about Black digitality as a means to claim space, and to overturn feelings of fugitivity and stranger-ness in the archive, shifted my perspective on my own position. Marisa Parham postulates that Black digitality is significant because ‘Black diasporic existence is a digitizing experience’, as it continually consists of and embraces ‘Transfer, migration, metonymy’.20 Black communities in the UK have proven adept at traversing digital spaces and reproducing information to resist oppression, making a digital project to share Black theatre one which already connects with Black diasporic modes of cultural transmission. The prospect of incorporating the empowering aspects of Black digitality to transmit Black theatre histories was something I wanted to explore, although it does not offer an alternative solution to the problem of carving out Black space in theatre and performance archiving. Cultivating decolonising spaces for racially marginalised communities is necessary, even more so when you are positioned the ‘stranger’. As Kelsey Blackwell states, people of colour need spaces of their own, designated spaces which are secluded from whiteness, ‘the water in which we all swim’, as part of a vital strategy to counter oppression.21

Despite the problem of whether digital spaces are sufficient, the potentiality of Black digitality began to transform my own feeling of fugitivity within the archive. I felt encouraged to reimagine my research in line with Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s emboldening conception of ‘Black fugitivity’, taking the dislocation that I felt, the feeling of exile in the wilderness of whiteness and claiming it wilfully. For Harney and Moten, to be a fugitive is to choose to be ‘together in homelessness’, to be within and without in relation to the institution, to embrace an ‘apositionality’ in being ‘the black thing that cuts the regulative, governant force’ of the white institution.22 The fugitive is not only the ‘alien’ as Harney and Moten demonstrate; the fugitive is also the one who is ‘slippery’, difficult to grasp, elusive – all these qualities give those who take up Black fugitivity within the institution an advantage within that body of water called whiteness in which we are submerged. The ability to harness digital technology to remember and reproduce Black cultural knowledge, to traverse several spaces which Black bodies may not be able to enter in the ‘lived’ world, means that Black digitality can allow the sensation of fugitivity to be reclaimed as one of transgression, wilfulness and resistance.23 

That Black Theatre Podcast

One project which I undertook as part of an effort to be ‘willful’ in the archive, to embrace and attempt to practice fugitivity through Black digitality, was to create a podcast series, That Black Theatre Podcast. I decided to create a podcast that could reproduce and disseminate Black British theatre histories and archival performance ephemera to help it thrive. After private discussions about who might be best suited to undertake the project, I developed and wrote it with my sister, Nadia Deller, who resides outside the theatre industry and the academy, intentionally critical of both. We were both fugitives from these institutions, and so felt acutely positioned to share Black British cultural output whilst critiquing it, travelling across different spaces, time zones and cultures through Black digitality, whilst also being stow-aways within the National Theatre. Crucially, this project was devised and produced by two family members which – though perhaps sentimental – was a strategic decision. First, it offered the possibility to make a connection beyond the academy and the British theatre industry to reproduce Black cultural memory, and the possibility of trying to stay radical – to grasp things at the root  ̶  within the institution.24 As Kehinde Andrews reminds us, staying radical in the institution requires a vigilance to keep one foot outside of it, in the community.25 Second, sisterhood – both familial and political – offered up a space where fugitivity could flourish as we resided in a space which we carved out ourselves, a vantage point from which we could craft and transmit knowledge without regulation. Problematising and critiquing the historical omission of Black cultural output through a digital resource could be conducted anywhere, travel everywhere, all without fear of reprisal. The knowledge of my status as a ‘stranger’ and fugitive was no longer a source of fracture. 

In the first interview we conducted for the podcast, which was released in September 2020, Nadia and I spoke to Natasha Bonnelame (the BPA’s former project manager and my own doctoral supervisor, to whom I am continually grateful). The subject of discussion was the BPA. One question that I posed was whether the BPA’s existence as a digitised space is connected to and highlights problems of representation for Black communities in British theatre – why couldn’t we have a Black theatre archive that housed all the available archival materials?

To this, Natasha replied: 

So, on the one hand yes, it would be amazing to have a Black theatre space or a Black arts space. But I guess my main concern, and the reason why I move around is that […] I hate the idea that one space could be thought to represent all types, or the ways in which artists that we have would want to represent their identities or want to create work. And so yes, I think space is important, but I would want to pluralise it, I think spaces are important. […] I think there has been a tendency to look for that one space to make sense of everything and I just don’t think that is possible… I wouldn’t want to lose the plurality [of Black perspectives and cultural production].26

Reflecting on Bonnelame’s words, one of the most potent points which That Black Theatre Podcast makes as a means for Black fugitivity is its ability to open, highlight and potentially transgress several different spaces for, and from the perspective of, Black identities. From the subject of the BPA, the podcast series journeys through consecutive decades in Black British theatre history, using archival audio recordings of play extracts, intermingled with interviews featuring academics and Black theatre-makers. We also sort to tell listeners the stories of historical, social, and cultural events that shaped Black lives, and Black theatre, in Britain. The histories we told on the podcast began in the 1930s, speaking to Delia Jarrett-Macauley about the life and work of the Black feminist and anti-colonialist Jamaican writer, poet and playwright, Una Marson. The 1950s featured play extracts and discussion of Errol John’s seminal work Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, which recounted the lives of disenfranchised Trinidadians during the post-war migration to Britain. In later episodes we discussed the work and marginalisation of Black womxn playwrights with the eminent scholar, Lynette Goddard, who shed light on the ways Valerie Mason-John and Jackie Kay confronted race, class, sexual politics and Black queer herstories in the 1980s and 1990s. We interviewed and celebrated the ‘godmother of Black British theatre’, Winsome Pinnock, and heard from Roy Williams about race, class, sport and nationalism. In discussions on the ‘renaissance’ in Black British theatre in the 2000s, Goddard graciously offered their insight again, highlighting the significance of one of Britain’s most critically lauded Black playwrights, debbie tucker green. We listened to different Black voices (academic, artistic, intergenerational, ‘ordinary’) in all these spaces, finding and embracing our ‘homelessness’, hoping to push against the whiteness we found ourselves negotiating. These are only fragments from the histories and discussions we had on the podcast, and the work is still incomplete. 

Conclusions

That Black Theatre Podcast is by no means perfect, nor is it finished, but it continues the effort to be ‘ungovernable’27, willful and ‘to rebaptize the world in our own terms’28, which several Black artists continue to do today. The discomfort that I found within the BPA, navigating whiteness, and trying to critically engage with the complexity of my own positioning as a researcher, is also a constant – but the rupture I felt has transformed me from the fugitive on the run, into the subject who embraces their fugitivity. The possibilities of Black digitality as a disruptive force to foster an awareness of Black fugitivity crystalised in me when I started to question the BPA. Through my frustration towards this complex, contentious and important archival project, I was able to galvanise a sense of willfulness that I had not fully realised before. I created my own practice of Black digital fugitivity, one which I hope to continue with the aim of transmitting Black cultural knowledge to people and communities which lie outside of the academy and the domicile of the archive.

Nadine Deller is a PhD researcher undertaking a Collaborative Doctoral Award between the Royal Central School of Speech & Drama and the National Theatre. The aim of her research is to shed light on the different positions of Black womxn playwrights in the Black Plays Archive and to critique the ways that the Black Plays Archive preserves Black womxn’s theatre, which is still often submerged.

In September 2020, Nadine and her sister Nadia released a podcast series on Black theatre history, That Black Theatre Podcast, in collaboration with the National Theatre. Nadine also writes for the international film magazine, Sight & Sound.

 

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Notes:

  1. BPA Website, ‘About’, Black Plays Archive Website https://www.blackplaysarchive.org.uk/featured-content/about (accessed March 29, 2021)
  2. Lynette Goddard, Contemporary Black British Playwrights (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 213.
  3. Sara Ahmed, Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), 5.
  4. Sara Ahmed, ‘A phenomenology of whiteness’, Feminist Theory, 8 (2), 157.
  5. Ahmed, “Phenomenology”, 157.
  6. Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (New York: Minor Compositions, 2013), 96.
  7. National Theatre, ‘Theatre Call to Action – Response, July 2020’, National Theatre website, https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/sites/default/files/tcta_response_july-20_may21_update.pdf (accessed March 29, 2021).
  8. National Theatre, ‘Rufus Norris Appoints Clint Dyer as Deputy Artistic Director of the National Theatre’, Press release, January 26, 2021, https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/sites/default/files/clint_dyer_press_release.pdf (accessed March 29, 2021).
  9. Sarah Ahmed, On Being Included and Diversity in Institutional Life (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2012), 50-82.
  10. Ahmed, Strange Encounters, 55.
  11. Moten and Harney, The Undercommons.
  12. Ahmed, Strange Encounters, 55.
  13. Maev Kennedy, ‘Hope fades for Britain’s first black theatre’, The Guardian, July 14, 2005, https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2005/jul/14/race.arts
  14. See Lynette Goddard, Staging Black Feminisms (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).
  15. bell hooks, talking back: thinking feminist, thinking black, 2nd ed. (USA: South End Press, 1989; New York and London: Routledge, 2015): 5-10. Citations are to the Routledge edition.
  16. Diana Taylor, The Archive and Repertoire, (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003).
  17. Cesar Hidalgo, interview by James Ball, How information grows – Tech Weekly Podcast, The Guardian, July 2 2015.
  18. Mary F. Brewer, Lynette Goddard, Deirdre Osborne, eds. Modern and Contemporary Black British Drama (London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015); Lynette Goddard, Contemporary Black British Playwrights, 2015; Michael Pearce, Black British Drama: A Transnational Story (New York and Oxon: Routledge, 2017); Nicola Abram, Black British Women’s Theatre: Intersectionality, Archives, Aesthetics (Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020); Mina Salami, Sensuous Knowledge: A Black Feminist Approach for Everyone (New York: Harper Collins, 2020), 12.
  19. Winsome Pinnock, ‘Winsome Pinnock: Breaking Down the Door’, in Theatre in a Cool Climate, ed. Colin Chambers and Vera Gottlieb (Oxford: Amber Lane Press, 1999), 27-38. For discussions of the development of Black British theatre in 21st century, see Lynette Goddard’s Contemporary Black British Playwrights, 2015, 3-20.
  20. Marisa Parham, ‘Sample | Signal | Strobe: Haunting, Social Media, and Black Digitality’, in Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein (USA: University of Minnesota Press, 2019), 104.
  21. Kelsey Blackwell, ‘Why People of Colour Need Spaces Without White People’, The Arrow, August 9, 2018, https://arrow-journal.org/why-people-of-color-need-spaces-without-white-people/.
  22. Harney and Moten, The Undercommons, 96, 50.
  23. I use the term ‘willful’ here in line with Sara Ahmed’s exploration of the term in Willful Subjects (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2014), where ‘willfulness’ is articulated as a means of asserting subjecthood against objectification and resistance to oppression.
  24. Angela Davis, Women, Culture & Politics (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 14.
  25. Kehinde Andrews, ‘How to stay radical in an institution’(lecture, YouTube: TED x Talks, Dec 1, 2017) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFUymWxfrkQ (accessed March 29, 2021).
  26. Natasha Bonnelame, interviewed by Nadia Deller and Nadine Deller, That Black Theatre Podcast, September 28, 2020.
  27. Guillermo Gomez-Pena, ‘The Multicultural Paradigm’, High Performance Quarterly 47 (1989), 20.
  28. Michael McMillan and SuAndi, ‘Rebaptizing the World in Our Own Terms: Black Theatre and Live Arts in Britain’, in Black Theatre: Ritual Performance in the African Diaspora, ed. Paul Carter Harrison, Victor Leo Walker III and Gus Edwards (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002), 115-30.

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