London theatre group to tell pandemic stories of black frontline staff

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  • July 5, 2020
  • Comments Off on London theatre group to tell pandemic stories of black frontline staff
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Interviews to be turned into series of short plays to ensure contributions are not forgotten

Michael Buffong has been artistic director at Talawa since 2011.
Photograph: Chris Jackson/Getty Images

A series of short plays will tell the story of the Covid-19 crisis from the perspective of black frontline workers, to ensure their contribution to British life is not erased after lockdown, according to the work’s creator.

Michael Buffong, the artistic director of Talawa theatre company in Croydon, said more than a dozen black frontline workers would be interviewed and their experiences turned into six online plays for Tales from the Front Line.

“We’re not being told about the contribution of black workers. It is not been recorded or documented,” he said. “I thought we should mark this so that when this story is told back in 10 years’ time, our contributions are represented.”

Buffong said the erasure of the contribution made by black soldiers during the world wars, and the fact that few people knew about the black footballer picked to play for England in the 1920s, were examples of Britain’s missing history.

He said: “You tell people about the black soldiers in the world wars, and they say ‘really?’ Or that the first black footballer was around in 1918. Somehow these things mysteriously don’t get documented.”

The project will feature accounts from healthcare professionals, delivery drivers, supermarket staff, social housing officers and other frontline workers, who Buffong said had gone from vilified to valued because they provided vital services during lockdown.

Buffong said the fact that mortality risks were highest for black men and women had also influenced the project.

“If it wasn’t for Covid-19, we would be talking about Brexit and the Windrush scandal,” he said. “I just thought: isn’t that amazing? There are two kinds of hostility facing immigrants and people they deem shouldn’t be in the country. It turns out that these are the people who are keeping the country alive.”

He said theatre’s directness and ability to quickly turn around work made the project an efficient way to record workers’ experiences during the crisis. “I think it’s one place where you can have conversations relatively quickly, that are important, and are of the moment. That’s why these spaces are so important.”

Buffong said he had opted for the verbatim format – where the interviewees’ words provide the text of the plays – because he wanted “the story straight from the workers themselves”.

“I did a play many years ago called Black Poppies, which was about black soldiers in the British army. We interviewed soldiers who have done tours of Northern Ireland, and their stories weren’t told. This feels like one of those moments.”

Billed as “an interrogation of the society most impacted by Covid-19, and the society that will emerge from it,” Tales from the Front Line will be shown on the theatre’s website in the autumn.

Last week more than 400 actors and theatre figures including Paapa Essiedu and the Hamilton star Jamael Westman called on the British theatre industry to implement “actionable reform” that would make the sector more inclusive.

Buffong, who has been artistic director at Talawa since 2011, said diverse theatre work was under threat as institutions faced pressure to save money amid heavy job losses in the sector.

He said: “It is the time to safeguard stories from black and Asian minority ethnic groups and from the deaf and disabled. This is the time because we might be the first stories to go. Especially if we’re perceived as being ‘risky’, in inverted commas.”