Yesterday afternoon, I went along to Chickenshed to see an open dress rehearsal of Romeo and Juliet. This is a co-production by Bilimankhwe Arts, who share our office, and Nanzikambe Arts in Malawi. There's a terrific cast of Malawian actors, speaking mainly Chichewa but also some English, and the piece is directed by Amy Bonsall. It's performing tonight in Stratford, and then goes back to Malawi, where it will tour open-air venues, largely with the aim of making sense of the play to Malawian youth, who have the honour of studying it for their exams. My sense is that it will blow their brains.
The play is radically cut (running about 90 minutes) and is delivered in a very direct, storytelling style. The costumes are traditional African, and so is the music. There are virtually no props and no set at all - the show will work fantastically in open-air village spaces, school halls, and in Nanzikambe's own open-air theatre. It's rough, immediate, unpretentious and exciting.
There were about ten of us invited guests at the rehearsal, one of whom was Emer O'Toole, who works with Helen at Royal Holloway, and who Amy had invited on the back of a piece she wrote for the Guardian on the Globe to Globe Festival. After the rehearsal (which she clearly enjoyed), Emer asked Amy, and Bilimankhwe's Artsitic Director Kate Stafford, about the "political paradigm" of the company being composed of black actors, but the director being white. It led to a pretty lively debate, into which I got drawn - and so did the actors.
Emer's case (and I'll try to represent this accurately - but feel free to comment if you're reading this, Emer) was that the position of power in the majority of 'intercultural' productions tends to be held by 'the white person with the money'. This, she felt, perpetuated a colonial relationship between Europe and its former colonies. It's an issue I have faced before - though always from white middle-class intellectuals, and usually in relation to my directing 'black work' in the UK. From the point of view of Border Crossings, my answer is always that we don't do 'black work', but that we create theatre which deals with the fact that different cultures now inhabit the same spaces, globally and at more local levels, and that somehow we need to negotiate ways of living together. We won't achieve that by separatism. Even when I have directed an all-black cast, in The Dilemma of a Ghost, it was in a production exploring the relationship between African culture and the westernised cultures of the diaspora - and the cast included English actors as well as Ghanaian ones, precisely so the culture clash could be real. I deliberately decided not to produce Ama Ata Aidoo's other play, Anowa, which is actually the finer piece of writing in purely literary terms, precisely because in that play Africa speaks to Africa, and I felt that I had no voice in that particular dialogue, and neither did the UK audience.
We talked about the RSC's Julius Caesar (pictured), which has an all-black cast, but is directed by white director Greg Doran. Emer asked why, given that the company had assembled this cast, they could not also find a black director. My response was that the decision to set the production in Africa surely was the direction - and that to hire a black director after that decision had been made would have been tokenistic in the extreme. The issue here is surely not that the cast is black and the director is white, but that the production has been made by a group of English people (yes, the black actors are English), talking about Africa as a useful shorthand for a violent, unstable and superstitious world. That seems to me to be much more problematic than skin colour - in the same way that Rustom Bharucha has shown Brook's Mahabharata to be an appropriation of Indian culture for Western ends. That's where the real neo-colonialism is to be found.
But the strongest point in the argument was made by the actors, particularly by Aaron Ngalonde Nhlane, who is also a director with Nanzikambe. He clearly has some knowledge of arrogant western directors who impose their will on African casts - he did a very funny impression of the process. But Amy's work has not been like that, he explained. Her direction has been about facilitating a collaboration, in which she brought her understanding of Shakespearean English, and the actors brought their own language, their knowledge of Malawian culture, and their sense of the characters. And this is surely what an intercultural production has to be - not a 'power relationship', but a democratic space, in which everybody has an equal voice.
I acknowledge that this does not always happen. But it had happened in this production, and it is also what we do at Border Crossings. There is, of course, some sort of power inherent in being 'the director': but, as every true artist and every true democrat knows, the only way to deal with power is to give it up to a wider constituency. That seems to me to be a lot more important than skin-colour.
I respect Emer's point, I really do. But we have to get beyond it. It's crazy, in a globalised world, to say that only black people can talk about Africa or Chinese people talk about China. We have to have dialogues - and to discriminate as to who can take part in them on the basis of colour will prevent artists of integrity (like Amy, and like Aaron) from working together. And that is dangerous. Because the world needs what they can make in collaboration - something much bigger than they could make alone.