With the recent discussion about the clumsy addressing of race in Cloud Atlas, at much the same time as Artistic Director Gregory Doran was making ludicrously disingenuous statements about colour-blind casting at the Royal Shakespeare Company, now is an even better time than usual to talk about what real inclusiveness and non-tokenistic diversity might look like. If the RSC were genuinely interested in representing who the British are now, they would be hiring director Yvonne Brewster at any price. With decades of theatrical work in both London and Jamaica, Brewster founded Britain’s most prominent Black theatre company, Talawa, and produced work that showcased actors from a diversity of racial backgrounds, who were not getting the work they should have been in the large, subsidised theatres.
Talawa is a Jamaican word that translates roughly as fierce or feisty.
Earlier this year, Brewster was kind enough to answer questions about two of her productions with Talawa, for my book on female characters in Shakespeare. She addressed some fascinating and complex matters about what is communicated to a modern British audience by what race they perceive in the actor. This is what she had to say about her multi-racial King Lear:
The most important thing was the excavation of the text for a new kind of audience in Britain and to be very clear about where and how it fitted into a modern multicultural England… Casting was key to the examination of inter-familial behaviour: (well casting is always key). In this instance, bearing in mind that I have always been interested in examining telling ways of tackling homespun racially prejudiced attitudes in theatre, Lolita was of Asian origin [Indian] and Cathy was mixed race Anglo-Saxon/West Indian, while Cordelia was the tiny winsome beautiful African-looking pearl: In retrospect, all these years later, this admission may seem a bit cheap but there it is: it helped in isolating their differences in approach to the problem of inheritance.
There is no doubt about the high quality of the work Brewster continues to produce as a director, and she has attained something approaching cultural icon status in Jamaica. So the question is, why do prominent, publicly funded theatre companies like the RSC and Britain’s National Theatre fail to make better use of the talent that surrounds them every day?
Here is a profile on Yvonne Brewster from Television Jamaica.