‘The heat is on’: top theatres act to root out ‘system failure’ of racism

The Young Vic and Royal Court are rethinking their work practices to unpick centuries of ingrained attitudes – and achieve ‘the miracle of equality’

The Young Vic and Royal Court theatres have entered into a pioneering consultation process that aims to identify and root out systemic racism from their venues. The artistic directors of both London institutions have signed up to a two-year partnership with the social enterprise Sour Lemons that will interrogate the internal structures that uphold institutional racism, raise awareness and accountability, and listen to staff’s experiences of racism inside the buildings.

Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of the Young Vic, said that almost a year on from the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests, it was imperative to shore up statements of hope and support with concrete commitment to equality in the arts. “As an organisation, this is a KPI [key performance indicator] for us,” he said. “When we get to one year on from George Floyd, we will think, ‘What have we done?’ We will be listening and reflecting and, after that, we will be taking action. It’s going to be painful and slow. Anyone who thinks it can be done overnight believes in miracles, but we are trying to work towards the miracle of equality.”

Kwei-Armah felt it was not enough to have a black figurehead at the helm of an organisation in order to stamp out ingrained institutional prejudice. “There’s a system in place that is deeper than a single figurehead. I inherited a building that was very progressive, but it’s not enough now.”

Wendell Pierce and Sharon D Clarke in Death of a Salesman, directed by Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell for the Young Vic in 2019.
Wendell Pierce and Sharon D Clarke in Death of a Salesman, directed by Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell for the Young Vic in 2019. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Vicky Featherstone, artistic director of the Royal Court, said the pandemic had exposed the industry’s “fragilities” and could spur it towards positive change: “The rupture of not being able to make theatre this past year has given us important time for reflection. We can’t possibly go back to the same thing. The structures we have all inherited in theatre are extraordinarily patriarchal and institutionally racist as well. There are hundreds and hundreds of years we need to unpick.”

Featherstone, who announced an Anti-Racist Reflection and Action plan for her theatre last June, spoke of this collaboration as a way to “hold up a mirror to ourselves” and said it felt like an unprecedented step in her 30-year career: “Nobody has done this work before in my experience. I want people from all backgrounds to have a voice and impact the way we are run. It’s about genuine empowerment.”

The work would also address the plays staged and archived at the Royal Court, she said. “We have all inherited certain narrative structures. Some still stand but a lot of them need to be interrogated. Who are the people who shape the stories we tell? Who decides what a good play looks like? In the end, the biggest change will be in telling stories differently.”

artistic directors Kwame Kwei-Armah and Vicky Featherstone.
Artistic directors Kwame Kwei-Armah and Vicky Featherstone. Composite: Leon Puplett/Helen Murray

Sade Banks, CEO of Sour Lemons, said that up to 30 leading arts organisations had applied for help following the BLM movement last year, out of which the Young Vic and Royal Court were selected. The process was not about “shaming” but about identifying areas for change, she said. “We are not the race police but racism lives in secrecy. Most white liberal leaders can understand racism, but think it’s ‘over there’. The minute you understand that it’s in your institution, you can do something about it.”

As part of the consultation, there will be two working groups: an anti-oppression group made up of white senior leaders and an accountability group of staff with mixed racial identities.

Meanwhile, Featherstone dismissed the recent findings of the Sewell Report in relation to this consultation process. “In the past year at the Royal Court, I have never felt that the heat has been off in the need for change. But [the report] gives even more fuel to the work we are about to undertake.”

Kwei-Armah said: “There are very few people who would look at the data – both anecdotally and at the naked numbers involved in areas such as mental health, prison, the City, teaching and education – and not recognise that there was something happening on a holistic level. To think that the arts are not part of this system failure would be naive. I want to speak specifically about my sector, this theatre, and about the need for it to fairly and equally represent the make-up of our society in every way.”

• This article was amended on 15 April 2021 to include the information, in an image caption, that Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic was co-directed by Miranda Cromwell.


Arifa Akbar

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Beneatha’s Place review – the future of Black America and the shadows of colonialism
Kwame Kwei-Armah’s play takes a character from Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun on a journey to Africa

David Jays

06, Jul, 2023 @9:48 AM

Article image
Watch the Ukrainian drama Bad Roads at the Royal Court
The live stream of Natal’ya Vorozhbit’s drama has ended but you can watch it again here and a captioned version is available here until 8 April

Chris Wiegand

01, Apr, 2022 @5:02 PM

Article image
Scene changers: the theatre-makers with radical ideas to combat racism
Many black theatre-makers say they feel unwelcome in major venues. Are some performances for black-only audiences the answer? And how can a play spur white audiences to confront their own biases?

Arifa Akbar

02, Aug, 2020 @2:00 PM

Article image
Kwame Kwei-Armah announces £5 seats for his first Young Vic season
New artistic director will stage a musical version of Twelfth Night and introduces £5 tickets for every first preview at the theatre

Chris Wiegand

17, Apr, 2018 @11:01 AM

Article image
The Glow review – myth and history collide in a sci-fi spine-tingler
Alistair McDowall’s enthralling meditation on time and mortality features a sword-fighting knight and a Victorian medium

Kate Wyver

28, Jan, 2022 @9:30 AM

Article image
'Don't spit on the deck!' Arts bosses on how to hand over power
When Indhu Rubasingham turned the Tricycle theatre into the Kiln earlier this year, there were protests and passionate defences. Vicky Featherstone, Richard Eyre and Charles Saumarez Smith discuss the tricky business of artistic change

Andrew Dickson

14, Dec, 2018 @12:00 PM

Article image
The Collaboration review – Warhol and Basquiat mix paint and trade blows
Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope excel as the art world legends in Anthony McCarten’s account of a fractious friendship

Arifa Akbar

25, Feb, 2022 @12:00 AM

Article image
Premiere of Mandela musical to be flagship for Young Vic in 2022
Theatre’s chief hopes production gives younger people understanding of the price paid by radicals in the past

Lanre Bakare Arts and culture correspondent

14, Apr, 2022 @5:00 AM

Article image
Kwame Kwei-Armah named new artistic director of Young Vic
Award-winning British playwright, who is currently director of Baltimore’s Center Stage, will take over role next year

Hannah Ellis-Petersen

26, Sep, 2017 @3:45 PM

Article image
‘I want to take the audience further than they’d like’: Kwame Kwei-Armah on Beneatha’s Place
Continuing the story of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, the writer and director aims to create change with a reflection on today’s culture wars about race

Kwame Kwei-Armah

05, Jul, 2023 @7:00 AM