Sheffield's theatre revolution revealing black British history on stage
Theatre director Dawn Walton started a revolution and she's seeing its exciting results on stage in Sheffield and around the country.
Dawn is the founder and artistic director of the Sheffield-based Eclipse Theatre Company and Revolution Mix is a project she started three years ago, with Arts Council backing, to tell more black stories on stage.
Eclipse is the country’s foremost black-led theatre company and Dawn admitted she was under pressure to deliver: “I’d made these big statement about black narrative and where it’s allowed to exist and how I was going to bust that open.
“There were a whole lot of black artists and writers outside London who were being ignored.”
Dawn got together a group of 15 writers with the aim of finding ways to look at more than 500 years of black British history.
But then she found the story of black people in Yorkshire could be traced back 2,000 years.
The results will be seen in films and radio plays as well as on stage but Dawn was looking to tell a more overarching story and it turned out the answer was very close to hand.
“I heard about this incredible black men’s walking group in Sheffield. I got to meet them through our audience developers, who are ambassadors for us.
“Some of them will advocate for us every time a show comes through, and one was part of this walking group. I was asking him about it and is it only men that can walk?
“This Londoner suddenly found herself with walking boots on in the Peak District.
“On one of the walks I was really taken with this idea. They’re just beautiful and joyous, really supportive and they just don’t see that.
“We never see black men represented in this way, how they care for each other and talk to each other.
“It’s men talking. That’s astonishing and it’s another stereotype.”
Dawn spoke to West Yorkshire-based rapper, beatboxer and theatre maker Testament to take on writing the script, using the walking group as a starting point, rather than telling their real story.
The story is told by three main characters, who find that in order to go forward in their lives, they have to go back in time 2,000 years while on a walk.
The company were determined to tell the story in a fresh, exciting way, so Dawn said that for example a younger character appears and “talks in beats and bars and is much more connected to the grime music scene.”
She added: “It’s been something of a phenomenon. People have loved it everywhere they’ve seen it.
“It’s been a big, big thing that people have really, really loved.”
She’s excited to bringing the show home to Sheffield during its current national tour, when the walking group who inspired the story will finally see it for themselves.
“We invited them to Manchester, where it opened,” said Dawn.
“They said, ‘we want to come together in Sheffield. We want to come as a group’.”
Black Men Walking is at the Crucible Studio, Sheffield from April 9 to 12. Box office: www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk