The Root Interview: Playwright Roy Williams on Race in the U.K.

One of Britain's most accomplished playwrights talks about the black British experience and why he's not afraid to use his plays as a platform to talk about race.

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RW: Yes, I suppose I do, but I don't go into it thinking I'm the spokesman for the black British community. I'm black, and most writers write from their experiences. Hence, it stands to reason that that's where my plays come from. My experience is black, and that is obviously going to inform my work. But I'm not a card-carrying person saying, "Yes, I speak for the black British community." No, I speak for me, and I tell the truth as I see it and as I view the world. I'm not saying this is the definitive. 

TR: Sucker Punch, your most recent play, explores the black British experience in the '80s. Why did you want to go back and explore that era?

It was almost impossible to be young, working class and have dreams. I feel like this government is going to take that away from them and push them back down again, and that worries me. I was one of those out of work in the '80s and signing on [getting government benefits] for about a year after leaving school. It was the same for me and a lot of my friends, and I remember those days vividly. I have always wanted to go back and write a response to that, how the establishment, the powers that be, made people like us feel.

TR: The term "black theater" has often been criticized as being a label that alienates and marginalizes the work of black British playwrights. However, you argue that there is no problem using the term and that it is needed. For those who don't understand why the label exists, why shouldn't theater practitioners from the black British community shy away from using it?

RW: Because it makes us stand out. It tells and lets the masses know that, "OK, You see that group over there, on that corner? That is black theater. Go over there and have a look at them, because they are doing good work." If we didn't have that, we would get swamped, suffocated and blinded, and we would be ignored.

I [will] be the first to cheer when there comes a time when we don't need that phrase anymore. But I think we need it, especially now, with all the cuts in theater and the arts. I'm quite cynical, and if subsidized theater takes a heavy hit -- and it probably will -- then more theaters are going to be heavily reliant on the commercial sponsors. And it's going to mean, more than ever, that theater is going to be treated like a business.

I worry that black theater will take a hit. Some people may disagree, but that is what I think. The only reason I'm here is because of subsidized theater. My work does not go to the West End or the commercial theaters, and I'm not complaining about that. I have a great career, and I'm very, very proud. But I worry that with the cuts, if we don't have a group of people saying, "We are black theater" -- not in an extreme sense -- we will be at the end of the queue, and we will stay there. We need that, just to say, "Hey, we are over here, and we are doing good work. Come and see us -- we are doing hot, good work. Come and check us out."

Belinda Otas is a freelance journalist based in London. Follow her on Twitter.

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