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

Illustration for article titled The Root Interview: Playwright Roy Williams on Race in the U.K.

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?


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.