Why Yorkshire's Black theatre makers are a powerhouse of talent

Radio 1 DJ Clara Amfo this week took to the airwaves and declared: “You cannot enjoy the rhythm and ignore the blues.”

Sharon Watson recently became principal of Northern School of Contemporary Dance (NSCD) (Jonathan Gawthorpe).
Sharon Watson recently became principal of Northern School of Contemporary Dance (NSCD) (Jonathan Gawthorpe).

Here’s what I’m going to do. I’ve been profiling Yorkshire’s theatres since lockdown began. Today, I’m going to profile Black theatre makers and companies in our region. Some have featured in these pages before, some are new, all deserve the space.

This week, as America turns the clock back and we see footage that looks like the Civil Rights movement brought to life in contemporary HD, I want to look forward and provide a reason for hope.

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All communities need leaders and in Amanda Huxtable and Sharon Watson, Black women have two extraordinary leaders to look to. Huxtable is the artistic director and CEO of Eclipse Theatre and has worked in the industry for almost three decades across the UK, America and Canada.

Amanda Huxtable, artistic director and CEO of Eclipse Theatre. (Picture: Sharron Wallace).

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Their productions include the hit show Black Men Walking, written by Testament, a Yorkshire-based artist and beatboxer. The work of Eclipse has always been vital and will continue to be so.

No less inspirational is Sharon Watson, a woman whose achievements are awe-inspiring and would take the rest of this article to list. One of the first female dancers to join Phoenix Dance Theatre, an all-Black dance company originated by Leeds dancers David Hamilton, Donald Edwards and Vilmore James, she went on to become artistic director of the company. She recently became principal of Northern School of Contemporary Dance (NSCD), collecting an honorary doctorate from Leeds Beckett University and the accolade of arts and media senior Leader of the Year by the Black British Business Awards on the way.

Together with a number of other leaders, including Kathy Williams, director of RJC Dance, one of the leading inclusive Black dance organisations in the North, Huxtable and Watson released a statement this week. They said: “Recent events do not alter our course of action, it has made us even more resolute. We will continue to ensure the voices and experiences of our communities are cherished and celebrated in the work we create. Working together, in peaceful creative protest, we will collaborate with all the communities we serve to find a better day.”

Jamal Gerald has received much praise for Idol, co-produced by Transform and Theatre in the Mill. (Credit: The Other Richard).

The community of Black artists in Yorkshire have others who lead in a different way. Utterly fearless and gently powerful on stage, something that will be confirmed by anyone who saw her nationally touring What If I Told You, Pauline Mayers is one of the boldest artists in the region. Via podcasts, her on stage work or simply speaking out on social media, the Rambert trained dancer, choreographer and theatre maker is unflinching about the experience of living as a Black woman. If you don’t know her, look her up.

Another artist whose bravery on stage is inspirational is Jamal Gerald. Starting out as a poet, he has made work in many different forms including a solo show in which he talked about being Black and gay. In 2016 he toured his first solo show FADoubleGOT and last year premiered his joyous and much praised Idol, co-produced by Leeds' Transform and Bradford’s Theatre in the Mill. Much more is to come from Gerald.

A force in the arts world of Lagos, Nigeria, but a relatively new arrival to Bradford, Kafayat Adegoke is a Yoruba artist who heavily embeds her culture in her work. Having worked alongside two-time Grammy winner Lekan Babalola and the Sacred Funk Quartet, she has brought her unique energy to Bradford, staging her gender inequality show Orisha at the Bradford Fringe and worked with Theatre in the Mill on her one-woman show PER-SO-NA. She’s a thrilling addition to Bradford’s arts scene.

A tireless campaigner and highly regarded actor, Tanya Vital is a RADA graduate who has worked on soaps to blockbuster movies. She also works as a creative producer, bringing Yorkshire audiences the brilliant Chicken Shop Shakespeare. Vital is the founder and host of digital arts platform For T’Culture and the podcast Dominican Dad.

Leeds writer Gemma Bedeau is an exciting new voice who had been working in graphic novels before her first short play, Soon Come, was staged last year at Leeds College of Music.

Regarded as something of a pioneer and an enormous inspiration to countless young people is Khadijah Ibrahim, the founder of Leeds Young Authors, a playwright, producer, poet, author. Her work would be enough of an achievement had she not also inspired thousands of pieces of work by the young Black artists.

Then there’s Malika Booker a powerhouse of an artist whose work has appeared on Radio 3 and Radio 4.

There are so many more. The Black artists I spoke to this week are in pain, those same artists whose work enriches all our theatrical lives.

Before you question the need for this article, here’s a quote from another Black-led production, Hamilton: “We’ll never be truly free until those in bondage have the same rights as you and me.”

There are so many other artists that could have been included. Some useful links:

Northern School of Contemporary Dance nscd.ac.uk

Eclipse Theatre eclipsetheatre.org.uk

Malika Booker malikabooker.com

Jamal Gerald jamalgerald.com

Pauline Mayers paulinemayers.com

Leeds Young Authors leedsyoungauthors.org.uk

Kafayat Adegoke kafayatadegoke.art

The Geraldine Connor Foundation gcfoundation.co.uk

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