October 13, 2014, by Kathryn Steenson
A Spotlight on Black History
If you ask people what archives are, the most common response (after a blank look) is generally something along the lines of boxes full of old parchment. That’s not exactly incorrect – Manuscripts & Special Collections does have an enormous number of rare books and historic documents – but it misses an important part of what we do. We also take in modern collections that are important both for academic research and to reflect life in the East Midlands.
Our theatre collections comfortably straddle both groups. The largest theatre collection was deposited by the local independent touring company New Perspectives Theatre Company (not to be confused with the student-run New Theatre). Founded in the 1970s as a Theatre-in-Education troupe by a group of former teachers, they were soon advertising themselves as a multi-racial and mixed gender company at a time when inclusiveness and equality were rather more novel concepts.
As teachers, they intended their performances to be thought-provoking and educational, as well as entertaining, and often drew inspiration from contemporary events and society. One of their earliest plays staged was ‘Oluwale’, a dramatization of the true story of David Oluwale, aimed at schoolchildren. Oluwale was a homeless Nigerian immigrant living in Leeds and (allegedly) died as a result of police brutality in 1969 – or, as this newspaper article about the foundation of the theatre company referred to him, “the coloured tramp whose body was found in a river in Leeds”. The play was performed four years after his death and two years after two policemen received prison sentences for assaulting him, but were acquitted of manslaughter.
Their emphasis on developing regional writing talent meant many of the plays are original. They returned to the issue of race with their 1987 play ‘First Impressions’, set in 1976 with flashbacks to the 1950s. It examined racism, cultural identity and riots, and the media’s portrayal of such things. More recently, NPT performed ‘Hard Time Pressure’, focussing on the life of a black teenager living in North Paddington. The play reflected the common experience of young black people, such as interactions with the police and unemployment, and asks the audience what the appropriate response to victimisation and oppression is.
Although the majority of the performances examining racial issues and identity have been set in modern British society, ‘Back of the Bus’ was a 1990 re-imagining of Rosa Parks’s fight against racism in the American Deep South. That NPT staged two plays about race in three years possibly reflected the awareness and condemnation of apartheid that grew in the late 1980s.
Whether a stand-alone play for adults or accompanied by teaching resources for further discussion in the classroom, New Perspective’s plays have reflected and challenged society’s attitudes. This is what makes the archive such a rich resource for studying 20th century cultural, social and local history, including race and ethnicity. New Perspectives Theatre continues to address contemporary social themes with their plays for children and adults, although thankfully employing non-white staff is no longer seen as a unique point.
Manuscripts & Special Collections are keen to add literary and performance archives to our holdings and make them accessible to researchers in our Reading Room. The theatre collections are the focus of our next exhibition in the Weston Gallery, “Playing Around: Taking theatre to communities across the East Midlands”, opening in January 2015.