20th Century Black Performance

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Date:Not Recorded

Description:As migrants from South Asia and the Caribbean arrived after the Second World War a dramatic change took effect in the direction of black performance in Britain. It was during this century that black people, and the cultural forms from their countries of origin, started to take root and come to life. It was also now that new forms were created which challenged the way that 'being black' was performed.

The late 1940s onwards saw the beginning of significant changes to black performance in Britain. In the United States and Britain black dance and theatre companies were being established by artists including Katherine Dunham, Paul Robeson and Berto Pasuka. The formation of companies such as ‘Les Ballets Nègres’ were a significant step in addressing the misrepresentation of black people and cultures in artistic performance as it was the artists themselves who were choosing the style and content of the repertoire to be performed. Dance forms from Africa and the Caribbean could now be seen on the stage in their original form and were also used to transform traditional Western approaches to dance. The authenticity of the art forms that were beginning to be presented shattered everything that had gone before them in the nineteenth century as the mere imitation and impersonation of black culture.

Despite early attempts to establish black arts companies, the struggle for representation had not been won and was about to intensify. The increased presence of black people in Britain from the Caribbean and South Asia in the 1960s and 70s provoked a hostile response from some politicians and sections of the media. Black people were attaining greater visibility in the newspapers and on television but again they were faced with stereotyping and misrepresentation as they were conveyed as figures of derision and as social problems. It was during the 1970s and 80s that the struggle for ‘black’ and ‘minority’ arts began to be fought, resulting at this time in the founding of the majority of black arts organisations and arts centres. Black cultural forms far from well represented in ‘mainstream’ cinemas, theatres, television and clubs and there was a need for black migrants-new and old- to connect with and share their cultural and artistic heritage. Spaces had to be created to allow this and centres such as The Cave and the Drum in Birmingham played an important role in allowing this to happen.

The struggle for black arts was, and continues to be, about empowerment. Not only has this meant the gaining of a voice and the power to represent, but also the marking of a presence and the expression of experience. Theatre companies such as Tamasha emphasised the importance of conveying to audiences the experiences of migrants in Britain and connecting the ‘homeland’ with the Diaspora. Similarly, playwrights, film-makers and musicians alike explored subjects such as racism, ‘mixed-race’ relationships, generation gaps and the ‘culture clash’ amongst other issues that were an important part of the experience of first and second generation migrants. Not only have individuals and groups communicated what it has meant for many to be black and British, but they have also showed how rich and varied performance in Britain has become.

Many artistic innovators have either developed their performance or performed in Birmingham during the 20th century and you can read about a selection of these in the following pages. Due to limitations of space it is not possible at this time to explore the full range of performances by and about different ethnic groups that have migrated to Birmingham; however it is hoped that this section provides a taste of some of the work that has been presented in the city.

Related themes:

Arts 1901-2000 (20th century)


Creators: Dr Vanley Burke - Creator

Donor ref:Birmingham City Archives: MS 2192 (14/1038)

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