Talawa Theatre Company
Talawa Theatre Company is a Black British theatre company founded in 1986. The core of the company's work is championing reinterpretations of classic plays, developing new writing and directing talent, and producing plays from and about the African diaspora and Black British Community. The Company is a National Portfolio Organisation, supported by funding from Arts Council England in recognition of consistently high-quality artistic work and audience development, with an uplift in its grant for the period between 2018 and 2022.
The company's mission is to provide opportunities for black directors, writers and actors, to use black culture to enrich British theatre, and to enlarge theatre audiences seeing black work. Talawa's work embraces touring classical works on the mid-scale to regional theatres in the UK, literary and participation activities, finding and developing new writers and scripts, and developing theatre-makers, artists and directors, alongside workshops for schools, colleges and corporate clients and presenting new work by emerging artists.
Jamaican-born Yvonne Brewster, Mona Hammond, Carmen Munroe and Inigo Espejel founded the company in 1986. Talawa's first production in 1986 was The Black Jacobins by C. L. R. James, a play that had not been performed in England for 50 years, and never before with an all-black cast.
Talawa has produced and toured classic work by numerous playwrights and writers including CLR James, Dennis Scott, Derek Walcott, Galt McDermot, Wole Soyinka, James Baldwin, Michael Abbensetts, Trevor Rhone, William Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, Tariq Ali, Theresa Ikoko, Natasha Marshall and Arthur Miller and worked with a variety of directors and actors including Michaela Coel, Cathy Tyson, Dona Croll, Ray Shell, Norman Beaton, Horace Ove, Paulette Randall, Don Warrington, Sharon D Clarke, Fraser Ayres and David Harewood.
From 1991 till 1995 Talawa had a home at Bloomsbury's Cochrane Theatre, a period within which the company achieved a high profile. Following the departure from the Cochrane Theatre in 1995, the failed attempt to secure a new theatre space in Victoria, and the departure of its founder Yvonne Brewster in 2003, Talawa was briefly led by Ben Thomas, and then Bonnie Greer, Paulette Randall, and Patricia Cumper, under whose direction the company regained stability of funding. Michael Buffong took over the helm from Patricia Cumper, securing Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation status for the company and leading to a renewed profile for its work with new artists and its revived classic theatre productions. Michael Buffong featured on Creative Review's "50 Creative Leaders" list in 2017, having also featured in the Powerlist, celebrating Britain's most influential people of African or African Caribbean heritage.
In February 2019 Buffong announced plans for a 200 seat on-site performance space at Croydon's Fairfield Halls, Talawa's first such space since its residency at the Cochrane Theatre which came to an end in 1995. Artistic Director, Michael Buffong described the move as enabling the organisation to "make outstanding work which will truly diversify and shape the cultural life of the whole country."
As well as touring major works across the UK, Talawa Theatre Company commissions new plays, and develops theatre artists and directors.
In January 2017 Talawa announced the creation of MAKE, a career development community of Black theatre artists. The MAKE community creates 250 new opportunities for Black artists every year, across four areas, enabling artists to make connections and build the support they need to create new work. A Talawa spokesperson commented that "Diversity projects tend to be just that – projects – and as a quick-fix approach, they are not building an infrastructure. What we need is sustained engagement that provides artists with a pathway into the industry, and the footholds to keep them there ...".
As part of MAKE, Talawa also offers a script reading service and produces an annual season of play readings, named Talawa Firsts, which showcases the best new black writing talent. The Company also supports and develops emerging theatre-makers – performers, designers and technicians – through their flagship participation programmes TYPT, and Studio Firsts.
Talawa Theatre Company produces a major touring production annually in addition to a rolling programme of artist development and showcases of new work.
Moon on a Rainbow Shawl
The 2013–14 production was a revival of Moon on a Rainbow Shawl by Errol John, directed by Michael Buffong and which toured across the UK, in addition to playing at the Royal National Theatre. Critics described the show as "an absolute must-see" "a well-crafted slow burner" and "treats the characters as real people rather than outrageous exotics ... Justice, you feel, has at last been done ..."
All My Sons
In October 2015, Talawa announced a new production of William Shakespeare's King Lear starring Don Warrington in the title role. King Lear was co-produced with the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester.
Reviews singled out the production for being "as close to definitive as can be", "a significant production" and "outstanding". Don Warrington's performance as King Lear was described as "a heartbreaking tour de force".
In late June 2016, Talawa Theatre Company announced the film of King Lear, in a collaboration with the Royal Exchange Theatre and funded by the digital commissioning body The Space. The film was available to view on-demand and free of charge on BBC iPlayer and the British Council's websites for three months in summer 2016, ahead of a cinema release in September and October 2016, and closed 2016 by being screened on BBC4 on Christmas Day.
Theresa Ikoko commented on her experience of working with Talawa to get the story produced, saying: "This isn’t the first play I’ve written, but it’s my first produced play. The first play I wrote, I didn’t really know it was a play, it was just for me. I would read it over the phone to my friend and when I’d finished he said I had to show it to someone. Talawa Theatre Company found me and [artistic director] Michael Buffong put that play in a Talawa Firsts show, and I got signed by my agent there ... Talawa completely took a chance on me. I had no training or experience or credentials, and there was no one to offer a reference. But Michael believed in me. It took me forever though, probably until the opening night of Girls at HighTide, for me to believe him."
Described variously as a story about growing up mixed-race, and as a story about friendship, Half Breed was written by Natasha Marshall and first performed at Talawa Firsts 2016 before being developed further by both Talawa and the Soho Theatre. That same partnership presented Half Breed at Edinburgh in summer 2017. At the time Marshall said: "My whole lifeI’ve been holding my breath but when I perform Half-Breed I feel like I’m breathing. I want to bring something real and different to the Fringe. I want to create a conversation, I want to open people’s minds up."
Half Breed was nominated as a "Best New Play" at the UK Theatre Awards. Half Breed was also nominated for the "Best New Play", "Best Female Performance" and "Most Promising New Playwright" awards in the Offies, an award presented by Off-West End.
Half Breed had a sell-out London run following its success at Edinburgh. The co-production of Half Breed toured India in autumn 2017, where it was well received by audiences and critics alike.
Guys and Dolls
Talawa announced their winter 2017 co-production with the Royal Exchange Theatre of the Damon Runyon-inspired musical, Guys and Dolls, the first UK production with an all-Black cast. Among the cast announced for Guys and Dolls were Ray Fearon, Ashley Zhanghazha, Abiona Omonua, and Lucy Vandi. Guys and Dolls played at Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre in an extended run from December 2017 to February 2018.
Reviews had particular praise for the music, direction, relocation to Harlem and sense of spectacle. As Lyn Gardner noted in The Guardian, "the gamblers ... are a bunch of sharp-suited peacocks clad in rainbow hues." The reviewer for The Times wrote: "Whoever had the idea of moving this classic musical from one part of New York to another bit, just up the road, needs to be congratulated. This version of Frank Loesser’s musical, which swirls around the lives of the petty gangsters and their 'dolls' who inhabit New York’s underbelly, moves the action to Harlem at its prewar height in 1939. It is a Talawa production with an all-black cast and it is terrific from the get-go." The Observer said: "Relocated to Harlem, this fine new production of Frank Loesser’s classic musical retains a threat of violence under a cartoon-bright exterior".
In October 2018, Talawa and Royal Court Theatre announced their co-production of Superhoe by Nicôle Lecky, which had previously been performed as a staged reading at Talawa Firsts in 2018. Superhoe tells the story of Sasha, a wannabe singer living with her mother and step-father in Plaistow, East London. A fraught relationship with them propels Sasha out into a world of cam and sex work, and Instagram fakery. There was praise for Lecky with one reviewer writing: "performing her own raw and fiery solo piece, she’s a revelation ... "  while another stated that the "slow reveal of all the ways in which Sasha has been neglected, damaged and violated is deeply affecting." 
In February 2019, Talawa announced The Tide, a Talawa Theatre Company, Greenwich+Docklands International Festival, and Breakin' Convention co-production, and Talawa's first ever show created exclusively for outdoor performance.
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