Black Theatre Co-operative

Company name: Black Theatre Co-operative

Established: 1978

Founders: Charlie Hanson and Mustapha Matura

Reason: To produce Mustapha Matura’s play Welcome Home Jacko

Current status: Black Theatre Co-operative became Nitro in 1997 and is still operating under that name

Area of Work: Black Theatre

Policy:  ‘To do plays by black writers that portrayed life from a black perspective in the UK.’

Structure: Co-operative: ‘We all would meet and vote on what we were doing next. When we toured in Europe we would delegate one person to organise the transportation, we would have someone look after the money side, someone looking after booking all the tickets, someone making sure we got fed when we arrived in a new place. It was quite an active co-op in that sense, everybody wanted to give their opinion.’

Based: London

Funding: Arts Council and British Council

Performance Venues: The Factory (Paddington), Theatre Royal Stratford East, Riverside Studios, Tricycle Theatre, various community centres, Bradford, Leeds, Quaigh Theater – New York, Germany, Amsterdam.

Audiences: Young black people, first-time theatre-goers, older people from the black community, general theatre-going crowd, writers and actors.

Company and work process:
(Quotes given below are taken from our interview with Charlie Hanson)
Charlie Hanson met the writer Mustapha Matura whilst he was working as Assistant Director on Mustapha Matura’s play Rum ‘N’ Coca Cola at the Royal Court in 1976. They went onto to work together on Nice for the National Theatre. When they approached The Royal Court with Welcome Home Jacko (1979), it was turned it down as the theatre was already producing a piece of black theatre, so they ‘decided to do it anyway’ and set up Black Theatre Co-operative. ‘It was unique as it was the first play by a black writer that portrayed young black teenagers. It was one of the first plays with young black actors that actually got black teenagers filling the theatre to see their counterparts and cheering them on.’

Following Welcome Home Jacko, ‘Victor Romero Evans and Chris Tummings were doing something for the BBC by Farrukh Dhondy and we thought let’s go and find Farrukh and ask if we can adapt one of his other stories. Farrukh Dhondy said, ‘Why don’t you commission me to write a play, and give me some Arts Council money?’ After the success of Welcome Home Jacko, the Arts Council were keen to fund the development of a second production, and that was Mama Dragon (1980), produced at the ICA.

For Mama Dragon they needed an actress who could sing. Victor Romero Evans was passing a record shop where Janet Kay was signing records, ‘She had the Number 1 hit at the time, Silly Games’. Victor phoned Charlie, who said to ask her if she’d be interested in performing with them. She was working in a bank at the time and said that she very much wanted to act. She came on board for Mama Dragon and ‘became a regular part of the company’.

‘It wasn’t formally founded as a company; we kept going because of the success of the first production and the fact that everyone liked working together and we weren’t paid to be together, we would just make our money each time we put a play on, and we’d pay ourselves and it’s true to say most of the money we earned was earned abroad. We’d get minimal amounts under the Arts Council schemes and then we’d take it to Holland and Germany, where we were popular, partly because there was reggae music often attached to it, so they would like that, and it was something they hadn’t seen before…and they like things with a slight political edge in Northern Europe. Welcome Home Jacko went to New York so that was an even bigger bonus.’

‘Riverside Studios under Peter Gill and David Gothard gave us free rehearsal space and more or less invited us in there to make it our home – in terms of having support, that was a great bonus.’

‘All of us would be on the look out for new plays by writers and obviously they knew how to find us…and we would all read the plays and decide which ones we wanted to do. We would have a reading session and decide whether it was the right kind of play for us to do and that would be a collective decision.’

‘We were talent scouted by Humphrey Barclay who was Head of Comedy at London Weekend Television. He came to see One Rule by Mustapha Matura (1981) at Brixton Town Hall and we met him in the pub in Brixton afterwards and he asked us if we would consider doing a sitcom for ITV, because they’d been trying to do something that would appeal to a young black audience and had failed, and didn’t know where to look, but they could see that although we were doing serious plays, they were popular with young black audiences, and there was humour. They were entertaining plays even if they had a bit of a political message. So basically the core of us did a four-week workshop to devise a sitcom, which turned out to be No Problem!, which was Channel 4’s first sitcom, and also was shown on ITV bizarrely. That kind of gave Black Theatre Co-op stability and suddenly we were being paid proper money to do what we liked to do. We were still doing theatre but, of course, having them on the screen for three years, they became household faces. We started doing workshops for black teenagers and a lot of young potential actors came to those workshops who went onto become actors.’

Personal appraisal and thoughts:
Charlie Hanson
: ‘For me it was a strange experience, it was a lucky experience. I didn’t set out to set up a black theatre company, clearly because I’m white. I met Mustapha, formed a good relationship with him, happened to do a hit play, and then met these young black actors that I got on well with, and we had a lot of fun. It was an amazing time. I look back on it with fond memories, a great time, it allowed me into a world that maybe I wouldn’t have gone into. I experienced another side of life which I felt privileged in a way to see, and because it was a successful venture for all of us – Desmonds came from the legacy of Black Theatre Co-op. Through Desmonds, I went onto do the Real McCoy and various other black projects for television. It stopped functioning as a co-operative at some point, an Artistic Director was paid and it changed, but I don’t think any of us begrudge that. All we can do is say is that we influenced a lot of people who went onto to work as writers or actors. You can’t do it all the time, you just have to do it and hope other people carry on the legacy.’

Reviews:
Mama Dragon
‘Perhaps if anything new is happening anywhere in theatre, or in our tired culture as a whole, it is something black. Mr Dhondy (who himself is Asian) seems to suggest this: and that black people will supply, whether they like it or not, the short sharp shock that whites, on stage or off, have failed to administer.’ (Victoria Radin, Riverside Studios, publication unknown)
Waiting for Hannibal
‘Black Theatre Co-operative take an ambitious jump into new territory with their bold, if occasionally bewildering attempt to reclaim black history…Thus from awkward beginnings, Waiting for Hannibal grows in confidence and power, culminating in a scene of stoic beauty and courage.’ (Rosalind Carne, The Guardian, June 6th 1986)

Productions:

PRODUCTION NAMEVENUESDATES
Welcome Home Jacko
Writer: Mustapha Matura
Director: Charlie Hanson
Cast: Victor Romero Evans, Trevor Laird
Burt Caesar, Alrick Riley, Maggie Shevlin, Shope Shodeinde, Chris Tummings
The Factory, Theatre Royal Stratford, Quaigh Theatre, New York (Revival)1979 - 1980, revived in 1983
Mama Dragon
Writer: Farrukh Dhondy
Director: Charlie Hanson
Cast: Victor Romero Evans, Janet Kay, Trevor Laird, Chris Tummings
Music: Matumbi
ICA, Riverside Studios, Community Centres - Bradford, Leeds1980
Shapesters
Writer: Farrukh Dhondy
Director: Charlie Hanson
Victor Evans Romero, John Normington, Chris Timings
National Theatre and National Theatre in Seoul, Korea1980
One Rule
Writer: Mustapha Matura
Director: Charlie Hanson
Cast: Vas Blackwood, Gordon Case, Katrin Cartlidge, Victor Romero Evans, Keith Hazemore
Chris Tummings, Larrington Walker, Steven Woodcock
Riverside Studios1981
Trojans
Writer: Farrukh Dhondy
Director: Trevor Laird
1982
Trinity
Writer: Edgar White
Director: Charlie Hanson
Cast: Burt Caesar, Gordon Case, Victor Romero Evans, Judith Jacobs, Beverley Martin
Arts Theatre1982
Fingers Only
Writer: Yemi Ajibade
Director: Mustapha Matura
1982
The Nine Night
Writer: Edgar White
Director: Rufus Collins
National Tour and Amsterdam1983
Nevis Mountain Dew
Writer: Steve Carter
Director: Rufus Collins
Arts Theatre1983
Tooth of Crime
Writer: Sam Shepard
Cast: Victor Romero Evans
National Tour and Amsterdam1983
No Place To Be Nice
Writer: Frank McField
Director: Alby James
National Tour1984
Redemption Song
Writer: Edgar White
Director: Charlie Hanson
Cast: Victor Romero Evans
National Tour1984
Money To Live
Writer: Jacqueline Rudet
Director: Gordon Case
Cast: Susan Browne, Judith Jones, Bob Phillips, Cynthia Powell, Vivienne Rochester, Chris Tummings
Royal Court and National Tour1984
A Raisin In The Sun
Writer: Lorraine Hansberry
Director: Yvonne Brewster
Tricycle Theatre, National Tour1985
Ritual
Writer: Edgar White
Director: Gordon Case
National Tour1985
Waiting For Hannibal
Writer: Yemi Ajibade
Director: Yemi Ajibade
Cast: Judith Jacobs, Pamela Nomvete, Willie Payne, Bob Phillips, Sylvester Williams
Drill Hall, National Tour1986
11 Josephine House
Writer: Alfred Fagon
Director: Gloria Hamilton
1987
The Cocoa Party
Writer: Ruth Dunlap Bartlett
National Tour1986-1987
Slipping Into Darkness
Writer: Jamal Ali
Director: Malcolm Frederick
National Tour and Amsterdam1988
Temporary Rupture
Writer: Michael Ellis
Director: Paulette Randall
National Tour1988

Interviewee link: Charlie Hanson and Mustapha Matura.

Existing archive material: Charlie Hanson

Links:
Nitro
Black Plays Archive/One Rule
National Theatre Archive Black Theatre Co-op
Victor Romero Evans
Chris Tummings/One Rule

Bibliography:
Six Plays: As Time Goes by, Nice, Play Mas, Independence, Welcome Home Jacko and Meetings by Mustapha Matura (World Classics, 1992)

Acknowledgements: This webpage was written and constructed by Lucie Regan from an interview with Charlie Hanson (Founder and Company Member 1978-1987). Unfinished Histories would like to thank him for his time in helping us draw together the above material. November 2013

The creation of this page was supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund.