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  • Writer's pictureJames Ireland

Voices to Amplify in Irish Theatre: Black Irish Playwrights and Makers

Updated: Apr 22, 2021

Theatre productions in Ireland written by Black artists have tended to be ‘imported’ into the country - either produced by Irish companies revisiting plays by writers from outside Ireland, or - more often - by bringing in touring companies.

The voices of Black writers from many nationalities are necessary in a healthy theatre ecosystem. Principles of variety, multiplicity of voices, and volume (quantity) are necessary in a healthy theatre ecosystem, and each production of these plays in Ireland are intercultural conversations that are necessary in a society that often lacks inter- and multicultural dialogue. The theatre canon of Black playwrights includes worldwide excellence.

If an international writer such as Ibsen is treated to multiple productions every year, why should Wole Soyinka be produced only once by an Irish company in the last decade --- and that production not even be in Ireland?

However: if every production is brought in internationally, it means that Ireland itself is missing from the conversation. Ireland is not the same as Canada, Uganda, Eritrea, and England,* even if aspects of Black people’s experiences across those countries may be shared. Visiting companies will be reacting to trends in culture and politics in these countries when they produce their work. Irish-specific experiences of Blackness - which for Black Irish people are part of the lived experience - won’t be part of the conversation. For a conversation happening in Ireland that’s not great! We need to produce work from our black Irish writers and makers - otherwise the experience of blackness in Ireland is absent.

*These are the nationalities of some of the black artists who have visited and whose work has been toured to Ireland in the past twenty years.

Irish productions of the 90s and 2000s, set in Ireland with Black protagonists but written by White writers, were criticised for their tendency to cater to one of two reductions of Black experience. Tendency one: presenting Black characters as victims needing saving. For example an over-focus on helpless refugees without agency.*

Tendency two: neglecting to confront the issue of race at all - instead favouring placid depictions of Ireland as a multicultural utopia where conflict could come from absolutely anything except those characters’ lived experiences of racism.

(*Another more insidious illustration of this tendency comes from television with the 2006 Fair City storyline that killed character George Udenze in a racially-motivated arson attack. A different option might have been writing a storyline around his family’s integration as productive members of the community at the same time as negotiating this racism.)

The record of Black Irish playwrights in the Irish theatre industry seems to be pretty small, but I’m trying to stay positive - so here are a couple of Black Irish playwrights and theatremakers currently practicing in Ireland that we can follow and support, and a little about them:

- Bisi Adigun and Arambe Productions

Bisi Adigun has written and produced a number of plays with Arambe Productions, as well as creating devised productions with the company. Notable plays include - Playboy of the Western World: A New Version (co-written with Roddy Doyle, Abbey Theatre, 2007). It features Christy Mahon as a Nigerian graduate seeking asylum in Ireland. Paddies of Parnell Street (Teachers Club, 2013) - a play based on Jimmy Murphy’s Kings of Kilburn High Road that sees five friends reminiscing in a Nigerian restaurant struggling to stay open post-Celtic Tiger.

In 2017 Bisi Adigun’s company Arambe Productions also curated the Festival of African and Black Irish Theatre (FESTABIT) in Project Arts Centre.

- Kunle Animashaun and Camino Productions.

Kunle Animashaun is the Artistic Director of Camino Productions, and also directs their shows. Animashaun and Camino’s work includes creating devised work and staging plays by African playwrights.

Devised work includes Fragments (Rua Red Theatre, Tallaght, 2014), a verbatim documentary theatre piece created with participants from the Intercultural Drop-in Centre in Tallaght; He’s written a number of new plays such as Pitfalls (2008), and Drumbeats (2012). And directing work includes plays such as Zulu Sofola’s Wedlock of the Gods (Project Cube, 2007) - a postcolonial play by one of Nigeria’s most influential playwrights.

Kunle Animashaun is also an essayist and theatre academic, with a number of published articles to his name on intercultural theatre.

Other points to consider:

- The voices of Black Irish people abroad, and their perspectives on the intersection of Black and Irish identities in different national contexts. Example - playwright, poet, and essayist Gabriel Gbadamosi has lived almost all of his life in England. His parents are Irish and Nigerian. His debut play was No Blacks, No Irish (Battersea Arts Centre, 1987), and his most recent production was Stop and Search at the Arcola in 2019.

- Other performing arts: Fried Plantains Collective are an amazing Black queer woman-led music, DJ, spoken word, and community arts collective in Dublin. Previous events include BLACK JAM (DFF 2018, winner of Judge’s Choice Award), and NU ROOTS (LiveCollision, Project Arts Centre, 2019).

- I’m focusing on writers right now, but this goes across the industry for directors, designers, actors, makers, producers, techies, and backstage and production staff. To anyone who reads this and says they can’t find enough actors, writers, directors, or makers to create work with - find them. An example: theatre company Calypso ran the Tower of Babel theatre and creative arts group for ethnic minority, refugee, and asylum-seeking young people in Ireland (aged 14-21) through the 2000s. This artistic training project was one group of practitioners’ responses to the absence of people of colour and intercultural migrant voices in Irish theatre. What’s your response going to be?

Further Reading:

Charlotte McIvor, Migration and Performance in Contemporary Ireland. Elisa Joy White, Modernity, Freedom, and the African Diaspora: Dublin, New Orleans, Paris.

Chapters by Bisi Adigun and Jason King in Performing Global Networks, (edited by Karen Fricker and Ronit Lentin).

Kunle Animashaun, ‘Fragments: Documenting memories and life experiences verbatim’ at the GUIDE Symposium (Galway University Integration through Drama Education). Accessible (Great further bibliography on this conference site as well)

Charlotte McIvor and Matthew Spangler (editors), Staging Intercultural Ireland: New Plays and Practitioner Perspectives.

Emma Dabiri, ‘I’m Irish but I’m not white. Why is that still a problem as we celebrate the Easter Rising?’, The Guardian.

Instagram @black_andirish stories, interviews, and profiles similar to the Humans of New York page.

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