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.


LONDON — Revered as one of Britain’s most prolific black playwrights, Roy Williams was born in the United Kingdom to Afro-Caribbean parents. At 42, the award-winning playwright has more than 15 plays to his name — Sucker Punch, Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads and Fallout are among his latest — gritty, witty and often rhythmic tales of black British life.

His plays, staged at some of London’s most influential theaters for diverse audiences, have consistently been met with critical acclaim. In 2008 he was honored with an appointment to Officer of the Order of the British Empire. Williams recently sat down with The Root to talk about the intrinsic relationship between race and theater.

The Root: When you started writing, what was the state of black British theater?

Roy Williams: There wasn’t that much about, and to be honest, it was not something that I was conscious of or angry about.

TR: How would you describe the current state of black British theater?

RW: It’s in a healthy state, a very healthy position, really. Fourteen years ago, even I felt that I would just do one play and disappear, like so many other black playwrights. But now I get commissioned, again and again. There are a few of us who are not just doing one play and going away. It’s not perfect, but we are much more visible now than we were 14 years ago.

TR: Taking that diagnosis into consideration, what do you say to those who say there are only three strands of narrative — racism, crime and hood stories — and are critical of black British theater and its ability to examine life from the black British sensibility?

RW: There’s truth in that, absolutely. But the fact is that these three areas do have an impact on being black in this country, whether we like it or not. I mean, people often ask me why I always write about race. One, I don’t. Two, when I do write about race, I don’t apologize for that. I’m black, and whether I like it or not, race plays a part in my life. And so, it’s not about, “Why should I write about it?” It should be, “Why shouldn’t I write about it?” Why shouldn’t we all?

Why should people be afraid to write about racism? I think it’s an important subject. It defines this crazy world that we live in. It should be written about, and it should be written about more. I really believe that it should be pulled apart for all its complexities and different shades of colors. It is down to the writer to find them and put them out there in the most original way they can. We are black. Like it or not, you have to deal with it.

TR: You were born and raised in the U.K., and have experienced the different cycles that the black British community has been through. Are you in a position where you feel you have the authority and right to explore and expose the black British community for all that it is, good or bad?

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?