Black British theatre artists you should know
In the 2011 census, 19.5 percent of UK citizens are listed as being from a Black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) background. But, as found in a 2019 study by The Stage, BAME communities are disproportionately represented in the industry — 7 out of 51 artistic director roles were held by people of colour.
Steps are being taken to combat the inequality in the industry. The second Black British Theatre Awards will be held later this month, as well as Clint Dyer taking over as director of the world premiere of Get Up Stand Up, The Bob Marley Story from Dominic Cooke.
As part of Black History Month, we’ve listed Black British performers and creatives from the industry, pushing boundaries and breaking records in the theatre world.
Born in London, Ashton made her professional theatre debut in 2007, starring in Othello at Shakespeare’s Globe. In the following years, she gave acclaimed performances at the Royal Court, the Almeida Theatre, and the Donmar Warehouse, later making her West End debut in a revival of The Maids alongside Uzo Aduba. In 2019, Ashton starred in a revival of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal as Emma, but that same year, her debut play — For All the Women Who Thought They Were Mad — received its world premiere at Hackney Showroom.
Aside from the theatre, Ashton can be seen on screen in Fresh Meat and Not Safe For Work. She’s also released a book all about her experiences as an actress; Character Breakdown was published in 2019.
Best known for her five-part novel series Noughts & Crosses, Malorie Blackman is one of Britain’s leading fiction writers. Her writing focuses on social equality, discussing racism directly. In 2013, Blackman was the first person of colour to be awarded the title of “Children’s Laureate,” given to those who have demonstrated outstanding contribution to their field.
For the stage, Blackman has written two plays: Noughts & Crosses and The Amazing Rob the Mechanic.
Winning season five of The X Factor in 2008, Burke has enjoyed a multi-award-winning career. But, in 2014, she swapped the concert tours for the West End, making her theatre debut as Rachel Marron in The Bodyguard at the Adelphi Theatre. Burke has taken on iconic roles such as Deloris Van Cartier in Sister Act, Svetlana in Chess and Roxie Hart in Chicago.
Sharon D. Clarke
Born in London, Sharon D. Clarke has established herself as a West End leading lady. She’s won two Olivier Awards for The Amen Corner (2014) and Caroline, or Change (2019), but Clarke’s been appearing in numerous West End productions for over two decades. Throughout her career, she has given notable performances in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the National, where she played the titular black jazz singer, and Hairspray as Motormouth Maybelle. In 2017, Clarke was awarded a MBE for services to drama.
Dumezweni is perhaps best known for originating the role of Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. However, she’s been performing in plays across the capital for nearly two decades. For her role in A Raisin in the Sun, she beat David Bradley and Benedict Cumberbatch to win Best Performance in a Supporting Role at the 2006 Olivier Awards. Even if you give her a few hours to learn a script, she’ll perform with aplomb, as shown in the 2015 production of Linda at the Royal Court. With Broadway and West End shows under her belt, it’s no surprise that Dumezweni is one of the country’s leading Black actresses.
Set to direct the world premiere of Get Up, Stand Up – The Bob Marley Musical, Clint Dyer is a leading Black British director. In 2003, he directed The Big Life at the Apollo Theatre, marking the first musical with Black British creatives to open in the West End. The Big Life told the stories of Jamaican immigrants onboard HMT Windrush.
Dyer also wrote and directed Death of England at the National Theatre starring Rafe Spall. In October 2020, the sequel Death of England: Delroy will be the first show to be performed at a reopened National.
Having won an Emmy Award, a Grammy Award and a Tony Award, it beggars belief that Erivo only made her West End debut in 2011. In the UK, she’s starred as Deloris Van Cartier in Sister Act and Chenice in I Can’t Sing: The X Factor Musical, but it’s her performance as Celie in The Color Purple that had everyone talking. So much so, she reprised the role on Broadway, starring alongside Jennifer Hudson and Danielle Brooks.
Gordon made theatre history with her 2018 play Nine Night, becoming the first Black woman to have their play staged in the West End. She starred in her own play, but she’s appeared in London productions for nearly two decades, including the 2012 play Red Velvet by Lolita Chakrabarti at the Tricycle Theatre (now Kiln Theatre).
Skipping classes to attend auditions to play Simba in The Lion King, Henry’s West End career has been unstoppable. He’s starred in Avenue Q and Saturday Night Fever, but he’s perhaps best known for his Olivier Award-winning performance as Lola in Kinky Boots. In 2013, Henry competed in BBC’s The Voice, placing fourth. In 2017, Henry was awarded a MBE for his contributions to theatre.
Kene’s one-man play combining elements of gig theatre and spoken word earned him two Olivier Award nominations for Misty. He’s soon to play the title character in the upcoming Bob Marley musical, but he’s no stranger to the London theatre scene. In 2009, he starred in Been So Long at the Young Vic, followed by One Night in Miami at the Donmar Warehouse in 2016.
One of Britain’s greatest soul singers of all time, Knight is a multi-award-winning recording artist. Making her professional theatre debut in 2013, she’s starred in productions including The Bodyguard, Memphis, and Cats as Grizabella. Along with Amber Riley and Cassidy Janson, she was one third of a West End supergroup, with their album charting in the top 20 in 2017.
We’re looking forward to seeing Knight return to the West End in The Drifter’s Girl as Faye Treadwell.
Born in London, Kwame Kwei-Armah succeeded David Lan as artistic director of the Young Vic, becoming the first person of colour to hold the role. Making his professional debut in Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens, Kwei-Armah later turned to writing, with his early works performed at leading British regional theatres. His 2003 play Elmina’s Kitchen opened at the National Theatre, receiving an Olivier nomination for Best New Play and Kwei-Armah unanimous praise. He returned to the National four years with Statement of Regret, later adapted into a radio play for BBC Radio 4.
In recent years, he’s directed the all-Black cast in One Night in Miami at the Donmar Warehouse. He’s also the holder of an OBE, given in 2012 for services to drama.
The Birmingham-born actor showed a keen interest in acting from an early age, performing in National Youth Theatre productions. His early performances were highly praised, with Lester receiving multiple awards for his professional debut as Rosalind in As You Like It. Lester is a versatile actor, with theatre credits including Company, Henry V and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. But, in 2013, he made history along with Rory Kinnear as they were both awarded Best Actor at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards. On television, he’s best known for starring as Michael Stone in seven series of Hustle.
Born to a Jewish mother and a British Nigerian father, Okonedo grew up in a multicultural household. After training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, she made her stage debut in a production of Troilus and Cressida, later finding fame after delivering an Academy Award-nominated performance in the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda.
Okonedo returned to the West End in 2017, starring in a revival of The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. She’s also starred in another Shakespearean play, playing the titular female role in Antony and Cleopatra.
Best known for portraying Aaron Burr in the West End premiere of Hamilton, Giles Terera is one of the West End’s most recognisable faces. He’s appeared in musicals including Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon, but has also starred in plays such as Henrik Ibsen’s Rosmersholm alongside Hayley Atwell. He’ll play Sammy Davis Jr. in the upcoming world premiere of the jukebox musical about Davis’ life.
Away from the stage, Terera is a keen filmmaker and musician. He was also awarded a MBE in 2020 for services to theatre.
Photo credit: Giles Terera and Beverley Knight (Courtesy of PA and TDG respectively)