B is for Black by Courttia Newland – 2003

Imani Shaw, Ben Nelson, Kate Nelson, Raymond Armitage, Michael Cerwin, Don Kenworthy, Jones, Lamming and Spencer

Synopsis: This play follows the newly employed Ben Nelson. Ben is now the Senior Arts Officer at West Chamberlyne Arts, an organisation that helps with the funding of up and coming theatre companies. According to his co-worker and assistant Imani Shaw (whose worked there 2 years), this is the first time there have been two black people working in the office at the same time. Imani and Ben have an immediate bond, she interests him in various black topics he was previously unfamiliar with, and urges him to do a few presentations for the Children of Tamana a place where black practitioners give positive teachings, spiritual talks etc. Ben comes from a well off background, and wants to prove he is not a ‘token’, he becomes determined to make a change in the theatrical community to give those with less chances an opportunity to thrive. Imani instigates a situation that will later come back against Ben, but what is her motivation? 

Available from: http://www.samuelfrench.co.uk/p/26723/hidden-gems-contemporary-black-british-plays

My Thoughts 

This play centres heavily on the concept of tokenism. While Jones, Lamming and Spencer discuss their acting aspirations, Lamming (a young black male) states that between the three of them, he is the most likely to get a role in something like Hollyoaks, because unlike Jones (a young white male) he is urban and not street. Meaning he “can be the token Black guy in an all-white cast and have a five year run in any soap”. I found this statement particularly interesting, because I do see some truth in it. I have noticed that more often than not, if a play, film or TV show does include a black character, chances are it’s a male character.

In a documentary  I watched a while back, the speaker mentioned that blackness is so often associated with masculinity that being black becomes linked with “male traits” like hardness, strength, aggression, boldness, independence and being overly sexual. I realised that this is also translated in black female characters particularly in comedies, although it is funny it has its consequences. Just as one actor can be type cast on a single character they’ve played in the past, so can an entire race and gender of people. A black male character however doesn’t necessarily have to act in such a way, but a black female character can sometimes be used to amplify these “traits” by being loud, obnoxious, sassy, rude and aggressive. These “traits” being the complete opposite of what is thought to be “feminine”: beautiful, docile, vulnerable, emotional and caring. Therefore “naturally”, it’s easier to cast black men as opposed to black women.

Lamming’s comment is then countered by Spencer (a young black female) who says “Cultural Diversity is in right now you know… There’s loads of award schemes and lottery money and initiatives set up to help people like us get a foothold in the market”. Whether this is sarcasm or not, this comment is also true for actors, playwrights, filmmakers and the like trying to make their mark in the industry, there are several schemes, competitions and opportunities. However how far does this diversity go, do actors with disabilities get the same opportunities, schemes and initiatives? If so to what extent? There are varying factors that are still not equal within the theatrical community, and as we all know representation matters.

Tokenism is then, broken down further by Imani Shaw. Her monologue gives an outline of what she and a few others perceive tokenism to be. According to Imani, tokens usually come from a highly educated background, are recommended as opposed to interviewed for a job, and lastly have a white or non black partner. She concludes that tokens are simply a face to say that a company is diverse, but the agenda remains the same, there is no actual motivation to make theatre inclusive for working class white, black, Muslim and Jewish people. 

To prove he isn’t a token and due to much of Imani’s Iago-like manipulation Ben delivers a speech, that in turn has a damaging effect on his life. This speech mostly highlights several things that are genuine concerns within the black community. Unfortunately, while trying to celebrate black culture, Ben’s speech is instead considered anti-white, almost like Beyonce’s Formation and its aftermath. Ultimately, Imani uses Ben as her token, such a speech would have been overlooked if she had done it, therefore using a black Oxford graduate with a well paying job (recommended to by his father in law) and a white wife, it received all necessary attention. 

All in all this play is a great combination of comedy politics and deceit, I tried not to go into too much detail as I don’t want to spoil the events but it is a great read.