"So... do you like it?"

 Queens of Sheba. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod for the Guardian

Queens of Sheba. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod for the Guardian

I have been speaking at length with black women working in theatre about the current climate of the industry. It is not new information that Black Women have been at the centre of Black British Civil Rights Movements for decades. Taking upon us the emotional labour required to highlight injustice, all the while championing marginalised voices and supporting our community in a lifelong mission to be heard. However, what is becoming painfully apparent is the existence of an insidious stranglehold around our critical voices.

A vital component of the conversation is how few black womxn* critics there are reviewing work, therefore resulting in the slow evolution of critical language. Initiatives like Critics of Colour Collective (founded by Bridget Minamore, Sabrina Mahfouz and Georgia Dodsworth) and gal-dem, which is a magazine written by women and non-binary people of colour, are an important step towards progress. However, controversially, I contend that we should be able to take up space in mainstream press/media outlets as well as creating and championing our own.

I am tired of the fanfare and “risk” associated with renowned theatres giving us a platform as it prohibits our work from being assessed side by side with its contemporaries. It is instead reviewed and revered as a precious diamond in the rough. What I have become confronted with of late is an impossible expectation to sacrifice critical integrity and prioritise indiscriminate cheer-leading. We turn up, despite the warning cry of our bank accounts, to support black theatre but are afraid to openly voice our thoughts for fear of being branded “harsh” or indeed furthering the “angry black women” trope we all know so well.  My question is, what are the consequences of critique and criticism becoming synonymous and how does this tone-policing feed into the misogynoir prevalent in the arts?

#BlackExcellence can be unifying but the power of Black Twitter cannot be underestimated. The fact is, many of us frequently defer to twitter as a source of critique and recommendations in lieu of traditional reviews. I believe this growing sea of positivity is in part because fierce support and valuable critical judgement begin to be seen as mutually exclusive. Post-show, “Did you like it?” echos through the bar followed by pressed smiles, sideways glances and hushed conversations days later in a safe enough environment for the answer to be “No.” I am uncertain of how relevant this question of “like” is to the analysis of work. In truth, I often like some pretty deplorable things in life – that does not equate to me believing them to be of good quality.

Praise given solely for the existence of black work rather than for the high standard of it is, of course, compounded by the fact that there isn’t enough work by Black British artists being commissioned. This makes me bristle as it insinuates that we do not actually produce excellence - which could not be further from the truth. Yes, our stories being told is to be celebrated. However, I do not feel gratitude towards revered theatres for finally recognising the might of our voice. The danger is that critics begin to come to our shows with a low bar of expectation, throwing the same buzzwords

“urban angst”

“multicultural”

“very real”

“thrilling”

around for our productions regardless of whether they are earned and in doing so devaluing the righteous space that we occupy in the canon.

Our work, when well-executed, can be truly magical but criticism is an important tool for growth and development in all aspects of life. Isn’t it possible to support some aspects of productions while challenging others?

I ask these questions, thirsty for an open discussion about which direction black theatre in the UK is going. Most people I speak to confess that they do not believe our community is ready to have these debates and conversations.

I ask, if not now, when?

*womxn = a more trans-inclusive term used to reflect the complexity of gender and diverse representations of womanhood.

Rachel Nwokoro